Patty Bruce, a volunteer with Portland Wheelers, pedals Mathew Russell around South Portland on Saturday, July 9, 2022, with a special, adaptive bicycle. The Portland Wheelers provide bicycle rides to those who can't ride a bike themselves. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Matthew Russell threw his head back, eyes closed, facing the midday sun while it beamed down from a brilliant blue sky.

A cool breeze blew across his face, snapping and fluttering a bright yellow flag behind him where Portland Wheelers volunteer Patty Bruce pedaled a special adaptive bike for both of them.

Russell is blind, uses a wheelchair and doesn’t speak but clearly enjoyed the summertime bike ride on Saturday at the Wainwright Athletic Complex.

“This is wonderful,” said Kim Russell, his mother, watching from a few yards away. “Matt is an outdoor person.”

Two people help a woman get ready for a bike ride.
Portland Wheelers volunteers Jean Montesano (left) and May Toms (right) strap Lisa DeFreitas into a special, adaptive bicycle on Saturday, July 9, 2022, in South Portland. The Portland Wheelers provide bicycle rides to those who can’t ride a bike themselves. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

For years, Portland Wheelers volunteers have given area congregate care center residents weekday rides around town and through wooded trails, using their custom electric-assist bicycles. But recently, they’ve expanded their operations to include weekend events for folks, like Matthew Russell, who live at home.

The every Saturday rides are part of the “Come to Us,” program and are running through October at three rotating locations in Portland and South Portland.

“We give rides to people who cannot bike on their own,” said Portland Wheelers President Karen Schilling. “It’s as simple as that.”

During the week, two riding sessions a day are run by volunteers at 26 different congregate care facilities in Southern Maine. Rides are as short as 15 minutes or as long as an hour.

Right now, the Saturday rides only account for about 5 percent of the Wheelers’ weekly total.

“The weekdays are full, but this program has room to grow,” Schilling said.

Clockwise from left: Tim Butterworth sports red sunglasses while waiting to take off on an adaptive bicycle ride with the Portland Wheelers on Saturday, July 9, 2022, in South Portland. “I like the sun,” Butterworth said; Patty Bruce, a volunteer with Portland Wheelers, pedals Mathew Russell around South Portland on Saturday; Portland Wheelers volunteers Robin Kessler (left) and Bruce (right) discuss their route before setting out on a ride. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Schilling said she currently has about 100 volunteers on her nonprofit organization’s roster, with a waiting list of more people eager to help.

The Wheelers group was founded in 2015 with just one bike. The next year, they had two. Now, they have seven.

“It just kept growing,” Schilling said.

The three-wheeled cycles use rechargeable batteries to help riders (called “pilots”) get the 130-pound contraptions going from a dead stop and up hills.

The passengers (called “wheelers”) just enjoy the comfortable ride.

Up front, where the wheelers sit, resembles a wheelchair and is cushioned with seat pads, can detach for fetching folks from their congregate care facility rooms, if needed.

There’s independent suspension on both wheels and stopping is done with disc brakes, for safety.

Each bike costs $12,000, but the rides are all free, powered by volunteers and paid for by donations, sponsors and fundraising.

“They just sign up and come to us,” Schilling said.

“I like the sun,” said wheeler Tim Butterworth, sporting a set of red sunglasses below his bike helmet.

While volunteers helped buckle Butterworth into the seat on Saturday, his father, Frank Butterworth, got on his own bike, ready to tag along.

“This opens up vistas to him that he wouldn’t normally see,” said Debbie Butterworth, Tim’s mother.

Two women ride on a bike.
Lisa DeFreitas is all smiles as Portland Wheelers volunteer May Toms pedals her through a South Portland park on Saturday, July 9, 2022. The Portland Wheelers give hundreds of bike rides a year to those who cannot pedals themselves. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Regular wheeler Lisa DeFreitas said she likes all the rides but especially enjoys them when they start off from CycleMania on Portland’s Munjoy Hill. That route takes pilots and wheelers along the waterfront, by the narrow gauge railroad and the East End Beach.

Schilling likes to hear that.

“Fun is actually in our mission statement,” she said. “So, we’re legally required to have fun.”

The time when Matthew Russell is riding also gives his primary caregiver — mom Kim Russell — a bit of respite time as well. Sometimes she makes a grocery store run. Other times she just relaxes, knowing her son is having a fun, safe time.

“Last week I just listened to a podcast,” she said.

Schilling said she hopes the Saturday Come to Us sessions continue to grow, throughout the rest of the summer.

“If you can’t ride a bike, come see us,” she said.

To learn more, or schedule a Saturday ride, visit the Portland Wheelers website.

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.