Plano’s Bluebonnet Trail sprang to life this year with a slew of visitors looking for a socially-distant way to get outdoors during the pandemic. The trail has seen a steady stream of guests—families, bike riders, dog walkers and even roller-bladers.
But there’s one group that had been missing since quarantine began: the Lone Star Wheelers.
Lone Star Wheelers is a free community program that offers adapted bicycle rides to those who can't peddle themselves. The program is set up at the DaySpring Senior Living center, which sits adjacent to the Bluebonnet Trail. The residents have been on lockdown since March when the pandemic struck.
In September, on the eve of the program's one-year anniversary, Lone Star Wheelers knew they had to do something special to mark the occasion. They celebrated with a 45-minute parade, right outside the DaySpring dining room windows.
"It’s been rough for our residents in quarantine to have a sense of normalcy and maintain connections out in the community," says DaySpring Executive Director Corey Valliant. "But Shannon put together an amazing parade, complete with costumes and clowns, that immediately brightened their spirits and allowed them to see the volunteers they hadn’t seen in six months."
Shannon Catalano launched the program in September 2019 at DaySpring Senior Living. Valliant says she wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Catalano first reached out to her about the program.
When the residents found out about it, Lone Star Wheelers created a new wave of excitement and energy among them.
"I did not expect that our residents would be as excited as they were," Valiant says. "They absolutely love it. It’s a chance for them to enjoy fresh air, get off the property in a different kind of way, and they really get to feel like a kid again."
The arrival of the Lone Star Wheelers adapted bicycle caused quite the stir when it arrived at DaySpring, mostly because it looked like nothing anyone had ever seen before.
The hybrid bike features a front seat where the rider can be safely buckled in, and the volunteer driver sits behind them, slightly elevated so they can navigate this specially-built bicycle for two. A second volunteer travels alongside this pod on their own bike, keeping an eye out for hazards on the trail and making sure the rider is enjoying their experience to the fullest.
"As much fun as the ride itself is, the best part is the conversation that comes out of these experiences," Catalona says.
They take the seniors to Jack Carter Dog Park to watch the dogs play and the Veterans Memorial where they have the opportunity to honor them and hear their stories. They build connections with the seniors, which Catalano says are special.
It's also helped Catalano feel like she's found her people among her Lone Star Wheelers riders and volunteers, something she didn't have a few years ago when she moved to Plano.
When she moved to Plano with her family, Catalano says she was having a hard time fitting in. She's vegan, and they only had one car. They did a lot of things that she says seemed strange in this area. "Our lifestyle just didn’t fit the mold."
After completing a few adventures with friends and family, including a cross-country bike trip from Canada to Mexico and a Century Bike Ride, she came across the Portland Wheelers in Maine. Seeing this group support seniors in a special way triggered a memory of her late grandmother, Margie.
"She was in Memory Care and one day, my brother and I were visiting while she was having a rough day," Catalano recalls. "She was frustrated and when we asked her what she wanted to do, she looked at us and said she wanted to go ride her bike. We later realized that when she was a young woman that riding her bike offered her a taste of independence, and she wanted that feeling again."
In Plano, Catalano turned to Collin College to give her the training and resources to launch Lone Star Wheelers. She earned a Nonprofit Management Certificate and bonded with her fellow students who were also working to make their own visions into a reality.
But she didn’t just want to do fundraisers. She wanted to launch and run an organization. She says the classes at Collin College showed her step by step how to set up a nonprofit, manage the finances. She was also able to learn from her fellow students who she says were just like her. "I’m so glad that I spent my money getting a local education and felt ready to get the program up and running," she says.
It took Catalano a little over a year to purchase the bike and begin giving rides at DaySpring. After six months, Lone Star Wheelers had more than 10 participating seniors, 12 volunteers and a steady interest of new volunteers ready to ride.
Then the pandemic struck in March and DaySpring went into a full lockdown, with no outside visitors allowed and all of their residents under strict quarantine orders.
“Quarantine has been so hard for me personally because this was my community, these are my people, this is what I've worked to find here in Texas, and I found it with Lone Star Wheelers," Catalano says. "It’s been a loss not having those connections. I hope they know we’re still out here thinking about them."
While the rides themselves are still on hold, Lone Star Wheelers continues to move forward this year and focus on fundraising efforts, including a successful North Texas Giving Day event in September. Catalano has also used this time to plan and set goals for the program, and now with enough funds to purchase a second bike, she’s on the hunt for her next partner organization to ride with.
She hopes one day that Lone Star Wheelers will have multiple partners throughout the state of Texas.
"We’re going to keep moving so when it's time, we can get these riders back into the fresh air and sunshine and give them a little bit of an adventure," she says. "It’s going to be so good when we start back up. People who took things for granted won’t do that moving forward. It’s so special to be out with the community, and I can’t wait to get back out there."