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Faced with his own death, his bucket list is to help poor children

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/31/2018 Cathy Free
Bob Charland refurbishes a bicycle earlier this year (Ed Cohen) © / Bob Charland refurbishes a bicycle earlier this year (Ed Cohen)

Bob Charland used to work as a nightclub bouncer. He was beaten so severely in the head twice by people he’d kicked out of the bar, most recently in 2015, that it damaged his brain.

Last year, he learned he had a cyst in the back of his brain and a tumor in his frontal lobe. He had memory loss, tremors and severe headaches.

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“My doctor said my brain looked as though it belonged to a 70-year-old man,” said Charland, 45, a mechanic from Springfield, Mass. Several months ago, the doctor upped that number to 90.

There was no way to stop the deterioration, the doctor said, eventually it would take his life. He thought about contacting Death With Dignity, a physician-assisted suicide organization. “I didn’t want to be a burden to anybody,” he said.

But then, he received a call from a counselor at an underprivileged school, wondering if he had some extra bikes he could donate. He, in fact, did have some extra bikes.

"That changed my whole mind-set,” said Charland.

Some people with a fatal diagnosis set out to travel and see the world. Bob Charland decided to dedicate whatever time he had left to giving bikes to underprivileged children.

Since the spring of 2017, Charland has spent more than $10,000 of his own money restoring about 1,000 bikes for kids. Coordinating with law enforcement in Springfield and surrounding towns, he works with police officers to help deliver the bikes and helmets to local schools, adjust seats and handlebars and give kids bicycle safety lessons.

He’s done this through the nonprofit he created, Pedal Thru Youth.

"I realized that I could still get up every day and do the projects that I want to do to help people,” said Charland, who also works on-call, when needed, as a deputy with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department.

Many of the children he brings bikes to live in high-crime neighborhoods, and their only prior experiences with police have been negative, he said. He often takes extra time to connect with them and is now known in some neighborhoods as “Bob the Bike Guy."

Bob Charland talks to parents and students about his nonprofit, Pedal Thru Youth, at a bike giveaway earlier this year. (Ed Cohen) © Ed Cohen/ Bob Charland talks to parents and students about his nonprofit, Pedal Thru Youth, at a bike giveaway earlier this year. (Ed Cohen)

“To spend time with these kids and see their smiles is an amazing feeling,” said Charland. “Sometimes, for the first time in a long time, they see that somebody cares.”

He devotes every Tuesday night to turning throwaway bikes into functioning, pretty ones. He works at a donated space in Lyndale Garage in Springfield, where he is currently employed as an auto mechanic.

Charland said he thinks he chose bikes as a way to help kids because the years he’d spent riding a bicycle as a boy in his hometown of Alplaus, N.Y., population 387, were among the happiest of his life.

He was raised by his stepfather who “worked many extra hours in construction to afford that bike,” Charland said. “Every kid should have one.”

Charland also recently started a backpack program to get grooming necessities and warm hats and gloves to homeless people through police officers, who keep the packs in the trunks of their cruisers.

He met his wife. Joanne Charland, 41, after she donated a couple of old bikes to his organization. The couple were married in an outdoor ceremony this past summer that included a dunking booth. She is now president of his nonprofit.

Because Charland can still function well on most days, and doctors have not told him specifically how much longer he will live, he chooses not to dwell on his health.

Instead, he concentrates on the good in his life: His wife, his daughter, Maile, 23, raised by Charland after his first marriage ended (he was her Girl Scout leader); his two stepsons, Rudy, 13, and Vin, 10. And the children whose faces light up whenever he delivers a truckload of shiny bicycles with local police.

Lisa Bakowski, principal of Boland Elementary School, where Charland has donated dozens of bikes, calls him a “phenomenal man” for the work he does. Boland is a school with 800 students, most living in poverty.

"A lot of our kids have never owned a bike,” said Bakowski, who uses Charland's program as a reward for children who have perfect attendance.

Students at Boland are now learning to give back themselves. They helped Charland with his backpack initiative, filling 100 packs purchased by Bakowski, and gave them out at Christmas.

"My students don't have much, but it's important to them to collect what they can and give back,” Bakowski said.

That’s exactly the impact Bob Charland hoped to make when he repaired and polished his first bicycle. So he will go on repairing and delivering bikes, hoping to make as much of an impact as he can while he’s still here.

“My brain will continue to get worse and at some point, I will die,” he said. “But I’m not there yet. Why not continue doing what I love?"

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