- Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2015

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) - They call themselves “twinsies” and share a bond that only a twin could understand. They playfully antagonize one another, trading barbs about their athleticism or performance in the classroom.

But 11-year-old Mia and Blaze Perry, of Frontenac, Kansas, are bonded in other ways: Both are blind. And both have recently been able to experience the childhood joys of riding a bike thanks to Joplin resident David Carey and his tandem bicycles.

“Usually we just kind of ride through the neighborhood and enjoy it,” Mia said. “I like it; it’s fun.”

“It’s also kind of a time-killer because you’re having so much fun and the time just kind of flies by,” Blaze said.

The Perry twins are among a group of visually impaired people who have spent their summer riding on the back of tandem bicycles with Carey and other volunteers through his Route 66 Tandem Cyclists organization, The Joplin Globe (http://bit.ly/1glKIBI ) reported. Carey, an avid cyclist, devotes several group rides each week to giving the blind an opportunity to experience an activity that they might not otherwise be able to try.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” he said.

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Carey first tried out a tandem bicycle as a youngster with his brother at a relative’s house, but because tandem cycling requires communication and partnership, it wasn’t quite to his liking at the time. He wouldn’t become an avid cyclist until 1986, when a head-on vehicle collision that nearly killed him also caused his insurance rates to skyrocket.

“I parked the car and started riding bikes,” he said.

Carey joined a cycling team in 1990 and about eight years ago began racing, with teams from Spokes & Spandex and later from Rufus Racing. More recently, he participated in fundraising rides between Joplin, the tornado-hit city of Moore, Oklahoma, and the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.

He has become so serious about the sport that he has cycled from Joplin to Kansas City and back, and last year he completed his first Ironman competition: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon run, all of which had to be completed in 17 hours.

He also returned to tandem bicycles, picking up a used bike years ago and fixing it up with his daughter’s help. He began organizing group rides about three years ago, and eventually he began to wonder whether he could incorporate the tandem bikes into those rides. He already owned two tandem bikes, so he started to search Craigslist and other buy-and-sell platforms, traveling across the region to pick up the used bicycles.

And then he had an idea.

“One morning, I woke up, and it’s like I had a dream,” he said. “The person in the back can’t steer, can’t see: Why not put a blind person on the back?”

So he contacted Calvin Churchwell, of the Midwest Low Vision and Technology Center; the Joplin-based nonprofit works to provide services, training and community awareness for people who are visually impaired. With Churchwell’s assistance, Carey offered his first tandem bicycle rides to three visually impaired children in May - the first of what would become regular rides.

Carey has now launched the Route 66 Tandem Cyclists group, which he expects will attain nonprofit status sometime next year. The group, including about a dozen volunteers, routinely hosts local group bicycle rides, including those for people with visual impairments and other disabilities. Carey, who now owns 12 tandem bikes and at least as many helmets that he loans out for the rides, has also purchased a cargo trailer and 15-passenger vans to allow the group to travel.

“This all kind of started with a dream, and I jumped on it and have been loving every second,” he said. “We have learned so much about what it’s like to be in their shoes. It’s so rewarding.”

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Viktoryia Johnson, a volunteer with the group, first began cycling with Carey about two years ago. When she heard about his plans to involve cyclists who are visually impaired, she knew she wanted to be part of the project.

In fact, she has taken Carey’s ideas and sought to expand on them for the service-learning requirement of her participation in the honors program at Missouri Southern State University. She has reached out to similar cyclist groups in places such as Springfield and Northwest Arkansas to help plan joint rides.

“My goal is to expand it … to anyone who wants to ride and to feel its freedom and speed,” she said. “The best thing, I think, is we feel like we’re a community because we want to help each other, we have our goals and we want to achieve them.”

Johnson, who will graduate from MSSU in May with a degree in human resources management, said cycling with a visually impaired individual on the back of her tandem bike has taught her what it means to trust another person and how to view the world differently. She plans to continue her involvement in this project regardless of where she ends up living after graduation.

“This was a really great way for me to connect with people who can’t see this world, but they can feel this world,” she said.

Carey said that since organizing rides for visually impaired people and others with disabilities, he has celebrated a number of success stories. There was the young boy who, after crashing his bicycle twice on his own, had sworn off riding another bike until he hopped on one of Carey’s tandem bikes. There was the bicycle ride with the 27-year-old blind daredevil who thrived on activities such as skydiving, even once losing his prosthetic eyes during a roller coaster ride. There have been a handful of individuals experiencing depressive symptoms whose moods have turned 180 degrees after a few rides.

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And then there are the Perry twins, who have an eye condition known as retinopathy of prematurity. It is a potentially blinding eye disorder affecting infants who were born premature and is one of the most common causes of visual loss in childhood, sometimes leading to lifelong vision impairment and blindness, according to the National Eye Institute.

In the twins’ case, it has caused total vision loss, said their mother, Angela Wilson. That’s why she is so happy that her children have found a way to be active outdoors in a safe, fun environment.

“I think it’s great,” she said of Carey’s group rides. “It’s an experience for them that, honestly, a lot of kids probably don’t get to try out. Without having any vision, it’s a whole different experience.”

Volunteer Valerie Box, who has ridden on the front seat of a tandem bicycle numerous times with Mia in the back seat, said that when Mia had finished her first bike ride earlier this summer, she had told Box that she had felt free. Both Carey and Box said they plan to keep expanding the 66 Tandem group so that others like Mia will be able to experience the freedom of riding a bicycle.

“We want to light a spark,” Carey said.

“There are already a lot of sparks being lit,” Box said.

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Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com

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