Right to Wind in Your Hair

By Addie Burchell (Gainesville, USA)

Day after day, as Ole Kassow rode his bike to work through the beautiful streets of Copenhagen, he saw an elderly man sitting on a bench looking at the world around him. Placing himself in the man's shoes, he began to wonder if the only reason the man was not biking was  because he physically could not. What started as a general inquiry soon led Ole to rent a rickshaw bike and show up at a local retirement home hoping to give a resident a ride. For the next hour, he spun lovely Gertrude around the city harbor where the ships she used to travel on from Greenland docked. Seeing the joy in her eyes as she revisited this place full of fond memories, Ole desired more adventures similar to this one.

Random acts of kindness were not foreign to Ole. He grew up perusing around the city with his father looking for people to bless, who taught him to surprise people with kindness. Yet this particular act of kindness had such a profound impact on Gertrude that all of her friends at her retirement home wanted to partake in the adventure she had experienced. Ole began to give bike rides more regularly and realized how his experience on the bikes had not only given his retired friends great freedom, but had also aided in connecting himself with his city in new ways. During each bike ride he learned about the lives of his passengers through hearing their stories, and together they learned about the people they met on their journeys. He noticed strong friendships begging to form from time spent cycling through the city.

Ole decided he wanted to share his experience with others, so he wrote a letter to the city of Copenhagen. A return phone call from civil society consultant Dorthe Pedersen soon followed, which resulted in a donation of five new rickshaw bikes to be used for Ole’s mission. “This is exactly the kind of citizenship I have been trying to encourage,” remarked Dorthe, now part of Cycling Without Age. So, the five bikes went out. Ten residents, fifteen new volunteers and close to one hundred other cycling locals following on their own bikes embarked on a journey through the city. Local TV news stations showed up to report on the event and by the end of the day, there were thirty new volunteers. Thus, Cycling Without Age was born. 

 
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What started as a kind gesture grew to an international non-profit organization servicing retirement home residents in over thirty countries. Ole had no idea that this gesture would become so overwhelmingly impactful. He makes it his daily goal to “put a smile on someone else’s face”. He believes that life is full of situations where individuals have the opportunity to choose kindness. In developing a close relationship with his first rider, Torkel, Ole learned the value of a cheerful attitude. “When I asked him why he lived so long, he replied that he isn’t grumpy because he doesn’t worry about situations he can do nothing about,” described Ole. Adopting this “let it go” attitude allows Ole to respond in kindness in daily-life scenarios. “Even the angriest of people can be diffused by kindness,” observes Ole, who truly understands the unifying forces of kindness.

He has witnessed contagious kindness spring out from Cycling Without Age as more and more individuals desire to get involved. Bike rides brought new friends and attention from community members who were inspired to get out and spread kindness of their own. Unity in the community has grown as “kindness generates kindness and has a positive impact on trust,” according to Ole. He believes that his kind of citizenship is what will make our world safer and reduce the fear that people have to step out into the world. “Trust is one of the most important factors in our society. The more trust you have, the less crime. Children can play in the streets. Elderly don’t have to worry. Kindness and trust go hand in hand and improve overall kindness.” Watching as the world joins his desire to spread kindness, Ole’s faith in humanity has been refreshed. Seeing so many people eager to help others has made him believe in the good of society and strengthen his belief that peace and trust is attainable through such kindness.

Not only has the community seen a revival, the elderly that are taken on these rides have experienced both mental and physical improvements as well. Though little physical activity is involved for those riding in the seats in front of the bike, passengers have gained more mobility simply from going on the ride. Ole explains this phenomenon using findings from Dutch doctors which describe how simply being on a bike can fool your brain into thinking you are participating in physical exercise. Further, the mental improvements that come from increased quality of life and stimulation of the senses give these elderly hope and motivation. They begin to believe they can do physically more than they once thought. During a bathroom break on a particularly long bike trip, Ole watched as passengers whom he had been told required a walker, simply got out of the rickshaws and walked all the way to the bathroom without one. The experience they had on their ride left them feeling alive and confident. 

It is this confidence and quality of life that Cycling Without Age aims to provide. Their mantra, taken out of the mouth of an early passenger, is to provide the elderly “the right to wind in their hair.” This kind and gentle woman happened to be blind yet enjoyed the bike rides just as much as any seeing woman. When one of the staff at her retirement home wondered, “What about the rides do you enjoy so much, if you can’t see the scenery?”, her response was, “I think it's wonderful to go outside and smell the flowers and hear the birds and feel the wind in my hair.”  Ole realized the immense validity in this statement. Lack of sight commissions the other senses to respond with increased vibrancy, allowing this woman to enjoy something that so many others take for granted. For Ole, this statement is more than an expression of a sense, it is a metaphor for the numerous rights his organization seeks to provide the elderly. The right to be mobile comes along with the right to be heard, to be part of society, to have friends and to have your stories shared. He wants his passengers to experience life to the fullest, regardless of their age. 

Ole has truly taken the burdens of these people into his own arms. Seeking their flourishing and happiness out of the kindness of his heart, Ole has inspired his community and numerous communities of people from around the world. His simple act of kindness has softened the hearts of many and encouraged kindness and trust to thrive.

If you are inspired by Ole's work, feel free to donate here and keep his mission alive.

Shreyas Hariharan