Inspiring Volunteers: Beatrice Shire of Wheel Potential

Beatrice and her son Doug enjoying riding together
Wheel Potential founder Beatrice Shire and her son Doug enjoy cycling together. Photo Wheel Potential
We often hear about the impact of volunteers on others but what about the benefit volunteers take from helping others? On International Volunteer Day, with a theme of #Volunteer4Inclusion, we look at how being a volunteer in cycling not only improves the lives of the people helped but also benefits themselves. As told to Julie Rand, Cycling UK member Beatrice Shire, a retired university lecturer from Canterbury, explains how she founded and runs Wheel Potential Community Interest Company, an inclusive cycling project that enables people with disabilities to go out for rides

How I got involved in volunteering

I volunteered because of my enthusiasm for cycling for anyone, regardless of ability. I have a disabled son who can ride a trike but for longer journeys, he and I ride a tandem. For a long time I had been trying to persuade our local city council to allow a container with suitable bikes, trikes and tandems, as well as wheelchair transporters, to be located in the district close to a reasonably flat cycle path, so that others could enjoy riding cycles in pleasant surroundings, despite any disabilities they may have.

Wheel Potential logo

Such ventures had started in some neighbouring districts with flat coastal paths but cycle paths in the Canterbury area were either too far from the city, or hilly until, 35 years after it first appeared on Council plans, the Great Stour Way was created. I was joined by a wonderful couple of friends, Frank and Gill, and with help from Active Life's sport development officer, we set up a Community Interest Company, Wheel Potential, to offer cycling to groups of disabled folk locally. 

We started with help from Spokes East Kent Cycle Campaign, a Cycling UK affiliated group that I am a member of. I had recently retired and shortly after starting Wheel Potential, a colleague with whom I spent a lot of time because he had Parkinson’s died, so I had spare time."

Who we support

We provide adapted cycling for adults. This involves having plenty of machines such as trikes, semi-recumbent trikes, a recumbent trike, tandem trikes, wheelchair transporters, hand cycles, a tandem and five two-wheeled cycles for support staff and clients who are able to ride them. We have an online booking system through which registered groups can book outings. They go for rides on the Great Stour Way, which is flat and just over three miles long, to Chartham, where some groups enjoy lunch in a 14th century pub. Our user groups have learning disabilities, physical disabilities and mental health problems and all enjoy riding by the river, even through mud after the rain!

What I do day to day

I spend a bit of time volunteering every day, and there are now three of us as volunteer directors, as well as a fourth who helps with carpentry, painting and other jobs. When one of us is away, the others cover contact with groups and bike maintenance. We are part of something much bigger now and have an increasing number of active groups and some individual families using the facilities.

Volunteering involves inducting new groups, providing keys, cycles, facilities for cleaning, pumping up tyres, and simple tightening up nuts. We also keep paper records of usage and have 'incident forms' for groups to record problems, and damage.

We ourselves do puncture mending and tyre replacement as well as other minor repairs and our local cycle shop, nearby along a minor road, fixes the more difficult things. We have discovered companies producing interesting cycles; we have met Get Cycling in York, who are our Asset Lock as well as our inspiration! They came and helped with a couple of 'Tryout days' as we started, making us feel that what we were doing was a good thing, with lots of support.

It seemed the time for inclusive cycling had arrived, as Wheels for Wellbeing had set up in London and we visited them for ideas. Unlike them, however, we don't have to be present whenever groups are using the cycles, as we have an online booking system and give registered groups keys to our containers.

We started small but now feel accepted by the local authorities - the County Council gave us a second wheelchair transporter and a company passed on a second container to us, which another company installed for free.

Cycling UK member Beatrice Shire, Volunteer Director of Wheel Potential

Supporting other volunteers

Once we had our system up and running, we were asked by a neighbouring council to take over their coastal venture, which had collapsed, but instead worked with another group of volunteers to show them how to manage the task without having to be present all the time. We met some wonderful 'clients' who became supporters, creating a better booking system for us, giving us cycles and money. We started small but now feel accepted by the local authorities - the County Council gave us a second wheelchair transporter and a company passed on a second container to us, which another company installed for free.

What makes me feel most proud about being a volunteer in cycling

I took some elderly people, including a former racing cyclist with Parkinson’s (I’m also Chair of the local branch of Parkinson’s UK), out with semi-recumbent trikes, which are easy to steer for people who have previously ridden bikes, convincing them that they can still spin through the countryside to a pub for lunch!

A montage of Wheel Potential

There's also enormous pride from my son, Doug, who persuaded his ‘friend’, a builder who built our house extension and got to know Doug, to raise money for us now he’s retired and captain of a local bowls club. My son is also very proud to be on Alpkit's website riding a tandem trike with me after they gave us a donation and we then appeared in their little green book about how putting aside 1% of profits can help a lot of people do a lot of good things.

What do you get out of the experience of volunteering?

It’s fun! It’s proved that everyone can do it and enjoy it. I have a reason to cycle down to Canterbury more often and check that all is well, so I probably go out more often on my bike – though I used to cycle to visit a colleague with Parkinson’s who lived a lot further away. Seeing other people’s enjoyment of cycling points out things that experienced cyclists take for granted, so we are reminded of lots of simple pleasures.

I would say to someone considering volunteering with local groups supporting cycling: "Get involved – doing things with others is a lot more fun that trying to do things alone." If I could describe my volunteering experience in three words, I would say: "Success at last!"

Volunteer in cycling

If YOU fancy changing lives through volunteering in cycling, take a look at the opportunities available through Cycling UK. Remember that volunteering not only helps others to feel more included in the activities everyone else takes for granted but it can also change YOUR life by helping you, the volunteer, to help build better communities. As the UN Volunteers mandate says:

"Volunteering provides opportunities for people, particularly those often excluded, to concretely impact their own lives and play a constructive role in their communities by volunteering their time and skills. Through volunteerism, communities around the world often experience strengthened solidarity and inclusion." 

#Volunteer4Inclusion #IVD2019