WILLMAR - The weather was brisk but Mary Frick was all smiles as she stepped off a trishaw after a quick spin down the sidewalk at Bethesda Grand.
Her assessment of the ride: "Very comfortable."
"During the summer that would be very fun," she said.
Organizers hope the future brings many more rides with a fleet of trishaws being developed through a partnership between Bethesda Health and Housing and the city of Willmar to launch a local chapter of the international Cycling Without Age program. It's the first such program in rural Minnesota and also promises to be one of the largest.
"We've been so excited about it," said Melissa Wentzel, wellness director at Bethesda.
So what in the world is a trishaw, and what makes it special?
Modeled after the cycle rickshaws used for local transportation in Southeast Asia, the contraption pairs a battery-assisted, three-wheel bike with a front passenger compartment large enough to seat two people. Put a pilot at the pedals and the trishaw is ready for an excursion down the sidewalk, along a nature trail and anywhere else a bike can safely go.
For seniors and for people with limited mobility, it's a way to get outdoors and experience the joy of a bike ride.
"An opportunity for people to feel the wind in their face" is how Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin describes it.
"We believe this is good for our senior community," he said.
The idea grew out of a meeting earlier this year, hosted by Healthy Together Willmar, to introduce ChangeX, a worldwide exchange for sharing successful projects that help promote health, education and sustainability at the local level.
Cycling Without Age caught their attention, and it wasn't long before a group of organizers decided to start a chapter in Willmar.
The city has invested substantially in recreational amenities for the younger population but when it comes to Willmar's older adults, "we have not stepped up to the plate," Calvin said. "This is an opportunity for us to give back to them."
Organizers see numerous benefits.
Aging often comes with declining mobility and reduced access to the small pleasures people might once have enjoyed, such as a nature hike, a bike ride around their neighborhood or an outing for coffee, Wentzel said.
Cycling Without Age is a way for people to reconnect with this part of their lives, she said. "Your life doesn't stop because you're old. There should always be new experiences. There's still fun things to do."
With mounting evidence on the positive impact of exposure to the natural world and the benefits of human connection, the program also can lift people's mood, inspire laughter and create opportunities for conversation and storytelling between pilots and passengers - all of it adding up to better physical and mental health, the organizers said.
The first trishaw arrived last month. Purchase funds were donated by the Bethesda Foundation, Vision 2040 and Open Door Church of New London.
Fundraising is underway to buy four more trishaws by next spring. In a second phase, five more will be acquired by fall 2019. Grants and private donations are being sought, and a GoFundMe campaign began this month.
"Our overall goal is to get 10 total in Willmar," said Stefanie Ryan, director of the Bethesda Foundation.
Organizers must raise $140,000 in all, enough to buy all the trishaws plus helmets, batteries and a trailer to haul the bikes, along with insurance coverage and maintenance.
Bethesda and the Willmar Community Center will be the headquarters for managing the bikes and making them available to the public for free checkout.
Organizers see lots of potential for the program.
They hope to bring trishaw rides to other senior facilities in town. "We're starting to build partnerships. We want their residents to be able to use the bikes too," Ryan said.
Britta Diem, director of the Willmar Community Center, is looking at ways to promote rides around Robbins Island and on local trails.
She would also like to get volunteers involved. "Through the schools would be awesome," she said.
The organizers envision group rides and rides to special destinations such as an outdoor concert or a coffee spot. They see opportunities for intergenerational and cross-cultural activities.
"The opportunities are endless," Calvin said.
In the short time since the first trishaw arrived, everyone who has seen it or gone on a ride has been enthusiastic, Ryan said. "It took off really fast once we got the bike here and people started enjoying it. It's so much fun. I don't think we've had one person we've talked to that hasn't loved it."