Forty-four-year-old Bob Charland of Springfield never had much free time.
Auto mechanic by day, bouncer by night, single dad all the time, he was the kind of guy who became a troop leader for his daughter’s Girl Scout troop and who learned sign language so he could teach an automotive class to deaf students.
He was always going. Then, about eight months ago, he noticed something was off.
“My right hand was shaking all the time,” Bob says. “My speech was going off. I was forgetting more and more.”
He thought it might have something to do with the concussions he’d gotten as a bouncer, like the time a guy he kicked out of the bar hit him in the head with a baseball bat.
“There was another time I left the bar where I got jumped by a couple of guys outside, and they left a pair of pliers in my head,” Bob says.
Doctors had been keeping an eye on his brain for a while and could see excessive brain atrophy, Bob says, but now they told him he probably had a degenerative brain disease, possibly chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
“My brain looks like it’s somebody in his 80s, almost 90 years old, and the reality is, once the brain dies, the body dies.”
Doctors didn’t know how long Bob had to live, but the diagnosis set him in motion.
“I don’t even think I was fully out of the door of the doctor’s office, and I called my lawyer and said, ‘Look, here’s the deal,’ ” Bob says.
He got all of his affairs in order, but something else was in the back of his mind.
“I don’t want to my daughter to see me not being able to take care of myself,” he says.
So Bob went to Vermont to look into a program called Death with Dignity, which allows people to take prescribed medication to end their lives after a doctor signs off and confirms they have less than six months to live.
Bob was only just starting the application process when he got a call from a school counselor back home in western Massachusetts. She’d heard that Bob sometimes fixed old bicycles to give to kids who couldn’t afford them, and she wondered if he had any to donate to her students. After the call, something changed for Bob.
“You know what? I gotta go home,” he says. “There was no more thought of ‘I gotta get my death ready.’ It was, ‘I gotta live.’ ”
The next day, he refurbished some tricycles and brought them to the preschool. A local news station put the story on TV, and suddenly requests started coming in. Before long, Bob found himself at another school giving bikes to kids who were homeless.
“They were riding and smiling at each other,” he remembers. “‘Look how fast I can go!’ These kids are innocent, and they don’t deserve this. They deserve something more in life. So if we can do something as simple as bicycles to change their life … I wasn’t going to stop.”
Bob decided he would devote the time he had left to helping kids get access to bikes. Every day, after work, he starts fixing up bikes and keeps going late into the night.
His obsession has grown into a community phenomenon. People call him “the bike man,” and volunteers come to donate bikes or help build them. Bob and his sister formalized the project, calling it Pedal Thru Youth.
Jeremiah Ocasio, 29, of Springfield recruited his whole family to volunteer and got his employer, AAA, to donate helmets to the kids. He spends any free time he gets working on the project with Bob, which he says he’ll keep up “until the end.”
“I already told Bob,” Jeremiah says. “He made me promise him that when he’s gone, we’ll keep it going. And I looked him dead in his eyes and told him that I would. We’ll be giving bikes out until the day I’m gone.”
There’s plenty of need. Bob and his crew had already given away hundreds of bikes when they heard about a teenager named Zachary Theroux.
“My bike’s my best friend in a weird way,” Zach says. “One of the only things that really makes me happy is going out and riding my bike.”
Zach, now 17, was 12 when his mother died of a brain aneurysm. Not long after that, his dad had to have both of his legs amputated. They lost the house, and now father and son live in a cramped hotel room in Chicopee.
Every day after school, Zach bikes to a nearby skate park and practices tricks until it’s too dark to see.
“It helps me clear my mind,” Zach says. “My bike is everything to me. You can be sad with it. It doesn’t judge me when I’m riding, singing, being a goof.”
A few weeks ago, Zach’s bike was stolen. So Bob the bike man called up his guys, and they showed up with 30 bikes for Zach to choose from.
“After my bike got stolen, I didn’t think there was a lot of good, like good people out there,” Zach says. “There’s a meaning behind that bike. It’s just godly almost.”
Moments like that motivate Bob. He barely sleeps, but he’s full of energy.
“Everything is unknown,” Bob says. “So maybe I have five, 10 years. Maybe I don’t. [But] I’ve made a difference while I was here.”
Bob doesn’t want a day to go by when he doesn’t help someone. Stop by the shop after 5, and chances are you’ll find him, garage open, leaning over a bike, working into the night and dreaming of the kid who will ride it.
You can also subscribe to the podcast.