Brandon Johnson was a dedicated Marine. He joined the United States Marine Corps right after his junior year of high school and was then deployed to Iraq. While serving overseas, he got a handful of impressive awards and another handful of injuries. Brandon’s Humvee ran over an improvised explosive device, forcing him to retire from the military he’d given so much of his life to.
Doctors transferred Brandon to a hospital in Germany for treatment, but he returned to the States with a traumatic brain injury, complex regional pain syndrome, degenerative disc disease, arthritis and post traumatic stress disorder. He could no longer walk long distances without a cane.
The injuries left this once independent man unable to do some things for himself. Brandon has a wife and three children, yet he couldn’t get out and play with them on sunny days. And he was unable to stay healthy because he couldn’t exercise as much as he should. Possibly even more upsetting, he wasn’t able to spend as much time in nature, walking, hiking and riding bikes.
That was before he found out about AMBUCS, a national nonprofit that gives specialized tricycles to people who need them. In 2011, Brandon was presented with his first AMBUCS tricycle, specially designed to help him regain some of his independence and mobility.
“When I came across AMBUCS … I was having trouble,” Brandon said. “I couldn’t ride a regular bicycle. I had muscle atrophy in my legs, and I couldn’t keep up with my kids. I couldn’t run beside them when they rode their bikes, (and) I couldn’t ride a regular bike.
“It allowed me to get out into nature in a way that I haven’t been able to in a long time. I probably spent all day every day out in the woods growing up, and it’s something I really missed.”
Cindy Perkins, one of the founders of Huntsville-Tennessee Valley AMBUCS, first heard about the national AMBUCS program when her daughter, who works with physical therapists, mentioned how much Huntsville could benefit from having an AMBUCS chapter. The more Cindy learned, the more quickly she fell in love with the group’s mission.
“They wanted someone from the community to come get involved so it wouldn’t just be physical therapists doing it for their clients,” Cindy said. “At the time, I was between jobs. … I said, ‘Well, I can do a webpage, I can do things like that.’ … I went in doing that, … became the president for three or four years and then went to treasurer. And (now) I am kind of stepping back into a membership role.”
Since the Huntsville-Tennessee Valley chapter started in 2009, they’ve given out more than 400 tricycles to kids and adults who need them.
The tricycles are for anyone with a balance issue, paralysis, brain injury or anything that prevents them from riding a bicycle. This includes everyone from people with cerebral palsy to muscular dystrophy to wounded veterans.
Think back to being a child and those carefree days of riding your bike with friends. Or maybe you’re an adult who looks on jealously at those perfect little families riding their bikes together on pretty spring days.
“It does give them that exercise, gets that blood flowing, gets that cardiovascular exercise that they need. … Otherwise they may just sit in a wheelchair all day,” Cindy said.
There are a lot of things people with special needs require. They need medicine, doctors’ visits and physical therapists. Even with great insurance, copays and prescriptions add up fast, so fun or even non-essential things get pushed farther down the list.
For Brandon, the tricycle changed the way he spent time with his kids and helped him regain some of his strength.
“I went from not being able to play outside … much at all to being able to ride beside them, being able to ride down the street while they’re playing football or throwing a ball around,” Brandon said. “It has even helped me be able to walk further with my cane or even without it sometimes, kind of like a rehabilitation but in a fun way.”
Each tricycle costs anywhere from $350 to $1,000 depending on how many bells and whistles the person needs. The customized seat back alone could be up to $250, Cindy said.
To make it more complicated, the tricycles are built overseas and extremely costly to ship back to the States. Think about buying something on Amazon that doesn’t qualify for Prime and then calculating shipping costs for a very heavy tricycle.
The tricycles are free to people with special needs, but families can certainly financially donate if they want to. Families can also use crowdsourcing to raise money for the tricycle if they have a large support system that might want to contribute.
Since the tricycles are free, it could take six months to a year for AMBUCS to raise the funding needed to build and ship one overseas.
Why Are They Special?
The process for getting one of these specialized tricycles is nothing like a parent taking a child to the bicycle aisle at Walmart and having him or her sit on a bike until they find one that allows their feet to reach the ground. Every AMBUCS tricycle is fitted to meet the exact measurements and features each recipient needs.
“They may not even be able to wrap their hands around a handlebar and keep it there, so we have special grips — special mitts — that velcro them to (the handlebar),” Cindy said.
It doesn’t matter what kind of disability the person has, AMBUCS has a way to help. If someone can’t use the pedals, they have hand-propelled tricycles. Even the seats are custom-made to help the person sit up.
It’s not just the features that make these bikes so special. It’s also how they improve day-to-day life. One Huntsville woman uses her tricycle to ride to and from work each day. Then there are people, like Brandon, who use the tricycles in rehabilitation — Brandon has made progress, graduating from one tricycle and upgrading to one with fewer features.
If you know someone in the Tennessee Valley area who could benefit from a specialized tricycle, contact Huntsville-Tennessee Valley AMBUCS.
If you’d like to donate to AMBUCS to help a child or adult get a tricycle, you can do that online here.
Lastly, if you want to help, but maybe don’t have a lot of expendable cash on hand, you can check out their recycling program. Huntsville-Tennessee Valley AMBUCS has partnered with a recycling company that will give AMBUCS monetary contributions for every donated inkjet cartridge, cell phone, digital camera, iPod, PDA or laptop.
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