Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

BELLOWS FALLS — Sierra Parker-Fletcher was shaking with excitement. The 16-year-old sophomore at Bellows Falls Union High School, who has Down Syndrome, knew she was about to get a big surprise, but her mother wouldn’t tell her what.

She was about to get her first bicycle.

Actually, a tricycle.

A convoy of police officers from Massachusetts and Vermont, with lights flashing on nine cruisers, delivered the red three-wheeler to Parker-Fletcher’s home on Laurel Avenue last week, and now Sierra can join her sister and her children riding their bicycles in the neighborhood this spring.

Sierra Parker-Fletcher rides her new bike on Friday, March 26, 2021.

Sierra, with pink nail polish, a sharp haircut and new shiny pink sneakers, turned shy with all the strangers, whose cruisers filled Laurel Avenue with flashing lights.

Because of Down Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder, Sierra’s sense of balance isn’t the greatest, said her mother and biggest cheerleader, Rita Fletcher. A bicycle was out of the question.

Her daughter, she said, was determined to ride a bicycle, or the next best thing.

“She can do anything,” Fletcher said of her daughter. “But her balance is just not there.” She said the family has wanted to get her a tricycle for several years to accommodate her short torso, but couldn’t afford it.

Dressed for the mild temperatures last Friday morning, Sierra initially hid her face and wouldn’t get on the first tricycle the officers offered.

The pedals of the blue trike were too far a reach for her, and Sierra ultimately decided the red one was for her. It was more comfortable, her mother said. But getting the seat adjusted to fit the petite girl occupied about six officers from different departments, all eager to make the adjustment for the shy but smiling girl, who eagerly donned a bicycle helmet.

“It’s your own bike, Sierra,” her mother said. “Are you excited?” Words deserted her, but her eyes said yes.

The organization that donated the tricycle, Pedal Thru Youth, was founded by a Hampden (Mass.) County deputy sheriff, Bob Charland, four years ago.

Charland, who was on hand last Friday morning in Bellows Falls, said Sierra’s bicycle is the 1,561th bicycle donated to area children in the past 3½ years, including bicycles or tricycles for many special needs children. The tricycle came with a big basket and warning flags and reflectors.

The DeSoto Classic has bigger wheels, wider handle bars, and “a much, much bigger seat,” said Charland.

Charland founded the group four years ago after his own life-threatening brain tumor was diagnosed, and he’s persevered beyond what doctors had originally said would be the end of his life.

“He’s an amazing guy,” Rita Fletcher said.

Charland, who drove the van that contained two tricycles (to give Sierra a choice), was joined by officers from the Massachusetts State Police, the Hampden County Sheriffs Department, the Vermont State Police and the Bellows Falls Village Police Department.

Charland said his organization of police officers works with the Easter Seals to raise money for the specialty bicycles. “I’m Bob the Bike Guy,” he said, noting his organization has 2,000 donated bicycles in storage, waiting to be fixed for kids.

Before he got into law enforcement, Charland said he was a professional bouncer and bodyguard, and he looks the part. His organization has been written up in People magazine (“Twice,” he said), the Washington Post and CBS Evening News, among others. His goal, he said, is to bring law enforcement closer to kids.

“I get up every day with a positive attitude,” said Charland. “Some people give up hope. But there’s no sense moping around,” he said, attributing his attitude with putting his illness at bay.

Adaptive bicycles for kids with disabilities are important, he said, because Medicaid doesn’t pay for them. In addition to the bicycles, the group provides law enforcement officers with backpacks for homeless people that include hats, gloves, MREs, protein bars, nuts as well as face masks and hand sanitizer.

Inaugural ride

It took a socket set from Bellows Falls Fire Chief Shaun McGinnis before the trike’s seat could be properly adjusted by Police Officer Ian Tuttle, so that Sierra’s pink sneaker-clad feet could reach the pedals. By that time, most of the out-of-state visitors had left in the cold rain in a cavalcade headed south, and Sierra, her mother, and the BFPD had retreated to their porch with the big red tricycle.

In thanks, she flashed the peace sign.

Tuttle made the final adjustments, and Sierra, accompanied by her mother, Tuttle and the police department’s social worker from Health Care and Rehabilitative Services, Barbara Parizo, went on the inaugural ride, but in a steady spring rain.

Sierra’s delight and determination took her and her entourage down Tuttle Street to the Bellows Falls Public Safety building, and back home, navigating the bumps and small sidewalk inclines with determination, and a helping hand at times.

Fletcher said she and her daughter are “very active” together, participating in many 5K runs, and doing organized community walks.

“She loves to sing, that is her thing,” Fletcher said, noting that her daughter loves country singer Luke Bryan. She also loves swimming, and dancing, and going to the movies at the Bellows Falls Opera House. She was a cheerleader for four years for the Pop Warner PeeWee football team.

“I think she’s addicted to pink,” Fletcher said, and as a treat she had temporary pink tips put in her hair for her birthday.

Fletcher has two other older daughters, 25 and 27, and when she had Sierra, she had no idea she would be born with disabilities. “I was 35 and a cancer survivor,” she said.

Sierra wears glasses and a hearing aid. She was born with club feet, but at age three months, she started having surgery to correct the problem.

“We lived at Dartmouth,” Fletcher said, referring to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. “It was very stressful. I was a single mom,” she said.

She said Sierra does well in school, and the past year she has taught her remotely, along with her teacher at BFUHS, Heather Chapman.

“She had a hard time adjusting. But once we got the Internet straightened out, she’s doing amazing,” she said.

“She’d say, ‘I want to do this, I want to do this.’”

Fletcher said that she’s not very computer savvy herself, and Sierra has taught her how to do some things on the computer.

“I can do this,” Sierra said, as she headed down the rainy sidewalk.

“Everyone around town knows Sierra,” she said. “She’s my little ray of sunshine.”

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.

Talk with us

Since COVID-19 makes it difficult to convene Coffees with the President, if you have a question or a comment about The Eagle, send it to company President Fredric D. Rutberg at frutberg@berkshireeagle.com