EAGLE LAKE, Maine - Few, if any, childhood rites of passage equal the feeling of excitement and independence that comes with a first bicycle.
Thanks to an outpouring of community support and enthusiasm, that day came last week for Savannah Plourde, an Eagle Lake girl who otherwise might never have known that special feeling of a shiny new bike.
“We rode bikes for many years as a family,” said Linda Plourde, Savannah’ s mother. “When she was smaller it was OK, but as she grew the bikes in the stores could not adapt to her needs.”
Like most other 7-year-olds, Savannah moves quickly from one topic or activity to another, whether it’ s dancing to her favorite tunes or demonstrating the horn on her new bike — everyday activities that present challenges for Savannah.
That’ s because Savannah has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and autism, and is insulin-resistant.
When Savannah was younger, Linda Plourde and her husband, Vaughn, could modify store-bought bicycles with training wheels so their daughter could ride, Linda Plourde said.
As she got older, those modifications no longer worked.
“I thought, there has to be a way for a child to ride a bike,” Plourde said. “That’ s all I wanted as a mother, for my child to ride a bike.”
After careful research and some test drives, the family settled on a three-wheeled model made by Freedom Concepts.
“These bikes are almost impossible to tip over,” Plourde said. “It takes four to six weeks to make one and it’ s custom, right down to the color.”
After finding the appropriate bicycle — in hot pink — the next hurdle was the cost.
With the bike’ s price tag at $4,000, Plourde knew she was going to need some help.
“After she test-rode it, Savannah said, ‘ Now I’ m just like every other kid on a bike,’ ” Plourde said. “As a mom, I said I didn’ t care what it takes, we will make this happen.”
A community-sponsored spaghetti dinner kicked off the fundraising. After that, Plourde began knocking on doors and, between private and business donations, raised $2,446.
“We still had $1,700 to go,” she said.
Enter Larry Murphy, teaching principal at Eagle Lake Elementary School and longtime physical fitness coach, musher and cyclist.
“Mr. Murphy heard what we were doing and came to see me [in June],” Plourde said. “He said he wanted to help.”
Murphy is no stranger to fundraising. A dozen years ago he raised $6,000 for school basketball by riding his bicycle to Bangor. More recently, he raised $1,200 for local after-school activities by tossing free throws in the school gym.
“I just wanted this to happen,” Murphy said of Savannah’ s bike. “I’ d heard they had run into a dead end and I figured there had to be a way.”
That way put Murphy, along with his wife, Irene Murphy, riding along with a support car on his own bike for a five-day, 250-mile ride around Aroostook County that ended July 4. When time allowed, Irene Murphy joined in on her bicycle.
Murphy said his plan was to draw a bit on his decades of area coaching and teaching. Over the years he has coached and taught at the university, high school and elementary levels.
“I wanted to open this up to The County,” Murphy said. “I was hoping because I had coached for so long people would pay attention.”
Pay attention they did.
All along the route, Murphy recalled, each time his story appeared in the local media, people would stop him and offer to donate to Savannah’ s bicycle fund.
At one point, while pedaling through Houlton, Murphy got a flat tire. The local Wal-Mart took a tire off a display bike and donated it to him.
Among the first to donate to his ride was the Emily Lloyd Sunshine Fund.
“It was really awesome,” Murphy said. “We raised more than we thought we would.”
On a recent visit to Savannah’ s home to check out her new wheels for himself, Murphy said his ride was more than worth it.
“I’ m really happy to see how she’ s taken to it,” he said as he watched Savannah pedal around the driveway. “Seeing her blast out of here with her mom chasing along with her is great.”
Murphy is not surprised how well the fundraising went.
“This community has responded every time I’ ve asked for help,” he said. “I was banking on the good will of the people and they came through.”
Though Plourde does plan to dust off her own bicycle to join her daughter on rides, for now she walks or trots along behind holding onto a special guide bar.
“It’ s for safety,” Plourde said. “Savannah is still learning how to brake and how to watch out for cars and traffic.”
As soon as the bike was delivered and assembled July 25, it was an instant hit.
“We can’ t keep her off it,” Plourde said. “She is so happy.”
One of Savannah’ s first rides was the 1-mile stretch down the road to her grandmother’ s house.
“When we got there, my mom asked her how she felt,” Plourde said. “She told us, ‘ Mama, I feel strong.’ “
Savannah will be a third-grader at Eagle Lake Elementary School this fall and already has plans to pedal her way there.
For Plourde and her husband, there is a near-indescribable joy in watching their only child ride her bicycle with such confidence and enthusiasm.
“I like it,” Savannah said after doing a few laps around the paved Knights of Columbus Hall parking lot across the road. “It’ s good exercise.”
Both Plourde and her mother, Rolande Pelletier, have nothing but praise and gratitude for Murphy’ s efforts on Savannah’ s behalf.
“Seeing her ride like that is a godsend,” Plourde said. “Mr. Murphy is an angel sent to us.”
Watching her granddaughter show off the bike, Pelletier agreed, but had a more secular view.
“I was in love with Elvis [Presley] but now it’ s Mr. Murphy,” she said with a grin. “He really is an angel.”
At first, Plourde said, Savannah had expressed a bit of trepidation.
“She was unsure how her peers would take it,” Plourde said. “But they were very receptive and I think some are a little jealous of that special bike.”
Getting ready to put her helmet on for yet another ride, Savannah looked up at her mother.
“This is a different and special bike,” the youngster said, settling on the seat. “I don’ t have to be like the other kids.”