By Jessica Dortch, AFRO Staff, [email protected] 

Volunteers for Medical Engineering (VME), one of 19 program services at the Image Center of Maryland, hosted a Bike Clinic on Sept. 28 to create custom-made bikes for young people, ages 10-21, with varying disabilities.  

As I neared the quad in front of Morgan State University’s Architectural and Engineering buildings, the clinking of metal, the tightening of screws and the sound of teamwork greeted me. Small groups of engineers were huddled around random pieces of metal that, when fully assembled, would soon bring someone so much joy. My heart strings were instantly pulled as I witnessed the pure sincerity, passion, and dedication in each worker. 

Volunteers for Medical Engineering (VME) part of the Image Center of Maryland, hosted a Bike Clinic on Sept. 28 to create custom-made bikes for young people with disabilities ages 10-21. (Photo by Jessica Dortch)

There were over 60 volunteers, a mix of professional and student engineers, who built each bike from scratch with the specific needs of its destined rider in mind. “Some children are non-verbal and have cognitive delays, so they need a way to let mom or dad know ‘hey, I need to stop’ so we have a handle for mom or dad to steer,” Angela Tyler, volunteer services manager, told the AFRO. After the bike is assembled, the onsite physical and occupational therapists then fit the rider to their new bike, making sure that everything works together properly before it hits the road.   

This simply isn’t your ordinary bike. Certain bikes come equipped with special handlebars, for those with an unsteady grip; seat belts, for extra safety; and pedal straps for a boost in speed and additional support. Riders are also given a free helmet and gloves that either match their new bike, or is the color of their choosing. Tammy Schuch, whose husband volunteers with VME through his employer, Northrop Grumman, decided to volunteer for the second year in a row to register volunteers.

“These aren’t typical bikes,” said Schuch, there’s a lot of hard work in them and everyone who helps put them together, and even the ones who help design them, they all put their 100 percent effort into them and they want to make sure it’s right for the kids.”

This event is VME’s 10th Bike Clinic in just four years, and their mission is clear: to create a life-changing event for youth. The center aims to spread agape love around, which is why the next Bike Clinic will be held in Harford County, subsequently, servicing disabled persons in that area.    

The Bike Clinic’s travel around the state of Maryland is made possible, mostly, by foundation and organizational grants. The clinic only asks for donations from the families of recipients in exchange for the bikes. Each bike costs about $800 dollars, and even more if sold commercially. If the families are unable to give at the time, then the bikes are completely free of charge. The point of this project, like many others at the Image Center, is to give disabled people a chance at independence. 

Jessica and Rilley Conklin posing next to Rilley’s brand new custom-made bike.

As a person living with visual impairment, the former Director of the State Technology Assistance Program, Mike Bullis, has experienced similar challenges himself. “I am fascinated by the independence solutions that I can develop, and then I can teach other blind folks those things too,” Bullis, the Image Center of Maryland’s executive director explained to the AFRO. It is that same fascination that inspires Bullis to get up everyday and make a difference in the lives of so many people. 

“The more independent these kids are at this age, the more likely it is that they’ll go to work, the more likely it is that they’ll see themselves going to work, and the more likely it is that on that first day, when they have a new baby in the house, they are going to say to themselves: ‘I can do this,’” Bullis emphasized. 

According to Dreamscape Foundation, 20 percent of Americans live with at least one disability. When speaking about disabilities, the conversation tends to shift toward children, but many people have become disabled later in life either by acquiring a disease, a condition, or an injury.     

“You can find the solutions that you need if you just look for them. People are working, people are doing things, people are raising their families, people are mowing their lawns, taking care of their kids, and doing what they need to do everyday. There is a set of solutions out there,” Bullis stated. 

Having a disability is simply not for wimps. At one some point you’ll find yourself fighting internally with yourself, about whether or not you are strong enough to endure various challenges, or you’ll be fighting with your family to sustain some type of independence and to keep them from over-helping you. 

“It can be tough, but it is doable. It is manageable. It is a life worth living. It is not half a life,” he added.  

For more information or to donate to the Bike Clinic, please visit the Image Center of Maryland’s website or email the center’s Executive Director Mike Bullis at [email protected].