Volunteers engineer bikes to accommodate young people with disabilities: 'Now I can ride my bike with my brother'

Brianda “Bri” Plendel,19, of Westminster, was standing in a parking lot Saturday preparing to try out her new, three-wheeled ride.

“I’ve always had trouble with balance on a bike with two wheels,” Plendel said as she stood beside her adult-size tricycle.


Plendel has autism and at times has trouble with her balance. The tricycle’s brakes had been repositioned by volunteer engineers to better accommodate her.

“I’m excited to ride it,” she said.


Plendel was one of nine young adults or kids who were presented with custom-built bicycles by volunteers working with Volunteers for Medical Engineering (VME) during a clinic at Change Inc., in Westminster. According to its website, VME crafts innovative assistive technology solutions and trains people with disabilities, of all ages in order to help them thrive at home, school, in the community and work settings.

It was the group’s 10th clinic, the second to be held in Carroll County. In addition to the nine custom bikes engineered and handed out Saturday, another was built to be donated to Carroll Springs Elementary School in Westminster. Typically, those receiving these custom rides range in age from 10 to 21.

The engineers modify the bikes to assist the riders depending upon their needs as VME tries to find a solution — often something simple — for which there is no commercial solution. One of the modifications could be simply adding straps to the pedals, to ensure the riders feet stay on the pedal.

“The requests come mostly through occupational and physical therapists,” volunteer Rod Boudreaux said via email. “VME sends out information to schools, non-profits, and agencies about upcoming clinics.”

Angela Tyler, volunteer services manager for VME, explained the process.

“A committee reviews the request and evaluates the child’s needs [they have to be able to ride a bike independently or with assistance] and determines the specific requirements for adapting a bike. Part of the process includes having occupational and physical therapists weigh in on what is needed to ensure the bike is fit just right for the recipient,” she said. “It’s usually a two-month process and goes through two committees for approval.”

Garrett Eckard, of Westminster, had always wanted a bicycle, but at 15-years-old, it just hadn’t worked out for him. Born with spinal bifida, a condition where the spinal cord doesn’t form correctly, he’s unable to pedal a bicycle with his legs and must use a wheelchair.

Tyler is then responsible for reaching out to vendors and bike shops for the parts that are needed for each bike.

“Sponsors and donations allow us to purchase parts to design and build the bikes,” said Boudreaux, a Westminster Rotarian who helped to find funding to make the event happen. “By using volunteer labor (VME) and ingenuity we can build bikes that individually match the needs of a particular child.”

VME coordinates with various groups such as the mechanical engineering club at the University of Maryland and other local community colleges as well.

A Howard Community College freshman, Emily Speierman, attended the event, working with others to ensure the bikes were just right for the kids. A resident of Mount Airy, she is in her freshman year at HCC and majoring in engineering.

“This VME project interested me not just because I am an engineering student,” Speierman said, “but also because I work part-time after school with a program with children with disabilities. It’s been awesome putting the bikes together. But the best part of my month is watching the kids’ faces when they get their bikes.”

Emma Cole,12, of Westminster, and her family, were the first to arrive at the Change building on Saturday. Along with her parents, Ryan and Jodie Cole, and her younger brother, Jackson, she was beaming ear to ear at the new bike that had been assembled for her.


A sixth-grader at West Middle School, Emma was born three months early and suffered a grade four brain bleed and hydrocephalus, which is excess cerebrospinal fluid on the brain. In addition, she has cerebral palsy on her left side, or hemiparesis, which is partial weakness on one side of the body. Her bike had some larger “training” wheels added to help with her balance and the position of the brakes was moved to assist her.

While most of the kids that receive bikes from VME have never owned a bicycle, Emma used to have a bike of her own.

“Three years ago, she had a standard bike,” her mom said, “and ended up flipping over the handle bars. She hasn’t ridden since then.”

Emma has been through a lot in her 12 years, including six brain surgeries and therapy at Kennedy Krieger Institute. She participates in adaptive physical education through Carroll County Public Schools. Once the necessary adjustments were made to the bike so that it fit her just right, Emma rode outside of Change.

“I’m excited to be able to ride,” Emma said. “Now I can ride my bike with my brother.”

As she rode back and forth in front of the building, a wide smile was plastered on her face.

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“She’s surprising herself a little bit,” Jodie Cole said. “She’s proud of herself.”

While Emma prepared to take her bike home, Hampstead resident Destiny Kearns was outside checking out her new bike.

Kearns, 17, attends Carroll Springs Elementary School in Westminster.

“She is autistic and nonverbal,” explained Elizabeth Thomas, Kearns’ grandmother. “This bike will help her with her motor skills.”

Kearns’ support team included her older brother, Devin Kearns, and younger sister, Danielle Kearns.

Her bike required a little more tweaking than others to allow someone to push it from behind and control the steering while she could hold onto the handle bars. As someone pushes her, the bike propels the pedals to go around, thus helping with her motor skills.

In another area of the parking lot, Judy McGee, of Taneytown, watched her daughter, Vanesa, try out her new pink bike. Soon to be 11, Vanesa has ataxia, which falls under the cerebral palsy umbrella, explained Judy. Ataxia affects her motor skills and balance.

“With regular training wheels,” Judy said, “she had trouble with balancing because the wheels are wobbly, and not sturdy.”

The new bike presented to Vanesa has larger, thicker and sturdier training wheels on the bike and she rode it like a pro while her mother looked on.

As the young people were trying out their new bikes, volunteers – engineers and OT/PT therapists – made sure the riders were comfortable and that all parts were adjusted appropriately before being taken home.

Twelve-year-old Polina Livingston, of Westminster, tested her bike with her mom, Amy, watching nearby.

“I had learned about this group/program through another parent and through their website. This bike will provide more stability with the larger training wheels,” Amy Livingston said, noting that her daughter has Down Syndrome. “Polina has to work harder and plan out her movements.”


On the first bike she’s ever had, Polina smiled brightly and said she couldn’t wait to go home and ride it.


For more information about VME, visit www.v-linc.org/about.

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