The first time her daughter, Paxton, took her Segway outside for a spin, Andrea Williams had a moment of panic as Paxton zipped by, leaving her far behind. "Slow down!" she called out.
"Now you know how I feel," her daughter replied with a big grin.
Ten-year-old Paxton Williams, who has cerebral palsy, is a former child representative for Easter Seals New Hampshire and an enthusiastic member of ES Riders. The program provides Segways - and, soon, electric scooters - to youngsters and adults who have physical conditions that make it difficult to walk.
The Segway personal transporter, invented by New Hampshire's Dean Kamen, has been a "lifesaver" for Paxton, who has always relied on a walker for mobility, her mom said.
Being able to use her Segway at New Boston Central School, where Paxton is finishing fourth grade, means she no longer has to leave 10 minutes early to get to her next class.
"It just makes her feel more like the other kids," Williams said. "She can get there at the same speed, if not faster."
And it's not just at school. "Shopping has been great because she can keep up," she said. "It's all positive."
Getting a Segway two months ago through ES Riders has been life-changing as well for the entire Pajunen family of Derry.
"Oh my gosh, it's meant the world," said Allison Pajunen, mother of 11-year-old Joshua, the newest member of ES Riders. "There are so many more things that we can do as a family."
Pajunen said when someone at Easter Seals first suggested Joshua might be an ideal candidate for ES Riders, "It sounded like a recipe for disaster."
But the very first time her son tried the Segway, she said, "he picked it up right away."
Born with hydrocephalus (excessive fluid on the brain), Joshua suffered brain damage that left him with some learning and fine-motor-skill delays.
When he relied on a walker for mobility, Pajunen said, her son was limited in where he could go. "You go to parks and it's usually either sand or mulch. In his walker, he would sink and just fall and trip. Now he can do whatever he wants."
Joshua now rides his Segway to school every day; he plans to use it inside school starting next year.
During a recent family gathering, Joshua could play outside with his cousins like never before, his mom said.
And it also means the family can at long last get a dog.
"I'm a huge dog lover," Pajunen said. But she couldn't leave Joshua behind to walk a dog, so getting one was out.
"Now he can come with us, so now we're getting a dog," she said. They've already picked out Chloe, a bulldog-boxer cross who's coming home next weekend.
How it started
Tom O'Reilly is the Manchester businessman and former Easter Seals board member who turned a good idea into a successful charity.
Back in 2005, he was participating in the annual Walk with Me walkathon alongside Andy Martin, an Easter Seals child representative that year. "It took all his energy to cross Elm Street from Merrimack to the other side," O'Reilly recalled.
The next year, O'Reilly was again doing the walk when Andy zipped past him, riding a Segway the manufacturer had loaned him for the event.
"I went home and I couldn't get it out of my mind," O'Reilly recalled. "It was one of those really wonderful nights, looking at a really great, great young man facing challenges most of us don't have to face in our lifetimes, but always smiling. Always smiling."
That was the beginning of ES Riders. O'Reilly challenged employees at his company, Logo Loc, and they quickly raised enough money to not only buy a Segway for Andy Martin but also for another Easter Seals youngster. The Segways retail for about $6,000.
O'Reilly has since sold Logo Loc, but the ES Riders project has continued to grow. It's given away 15 Segways to date, including one to a veteran who was injured in Afghanistan.
The program operates under the umbrella of New Hampshire Easter Seals. There's a small informal board of volunteers that reviews potential candidates who are recommended by Easter Seals, school officials or community organizations, and determines who will get Segways or scooters.
"We call it the freedom to ride," O'Reilly said. "It just gives people with challenges the ability to go places that they've never been able to go before.
"It allows students to go out to recess and actually run and play with their classmates." And the cool factor turns these kids into celebrities, he added.
O'Reilly's latest idea is to purchase electric three-wheeled scooters for individuals who cannot stand upright to use Segways; he can buy them at cost - about $2,000 apiece - through his new business, TOR Import and Export LLC. He plans to donate four scooters to Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center for use on their accessible trail system.
O'Reilly said his vision is to have an ES Riders program in every state. He's proud that there's no federal money propping up the organization. "It's all donations, all from people that care."
Some of the most ardent supporters of ES Riders are the students at McKelvie Intermediate School in Bedford. That's where Ginny Toland teaches fifth-grade language arts and social studies and mentors the Community Action Team.
"The purpose of CAT is to really provide students with the opportunity to reach out to school, town, state, country and world communities," Toland said. "These are going to be our future volunteers . our future donors, and why not reach them when they're young, so they can really experience it firsthand?"
When Toland heard about ES Riders from O'Reilly, she saw it as a perfect opportunity to get her CAT students involved in helping other kids. It has since become a school-wide project, "Wheels For Love."
In the first five years, McKelvie fifth- and sixth-graders raised more than $34,000.
And each year, at a school assembly, the students watch as the newest recipient tries out his or her new wheels.
"It brings to life what they did, so they know what they're doing is the right thing," Toland said. "To see the difference that they made."
When a beaming Paxton Williams zoomed into the school gym on the Segway the McKelvie students donated for her, "there wasn't a dry eye," Toland said. "They realized how much that meant."