September 20, 2014

Ride for Missing Children: Inspirational cyclists visit schools to raise awareness of student safety

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
Riders cycle past NYSUT headquarters in Latham early in the morning of their 100-mile bike ride to pay tribute to Colin Gillis, an 18-year-old who went missing two years ago, and the relative of a NYSUT staff person. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.
Caption: Riders cycle past NYSUT headquarters in Latham early in the morning of their 100-mile bike ride to pay tribute to Colin Gillis, an 18-year-old who went missing two years ago and is related to a NYSUT staff person. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

When sixty-plus bike riders whizzed into the parking lot of Otke Elementary School in Clifton Park on Friday, hundreds of young school children were there to wave, cheer and hold posters.

The hand-scrawled signs, written in tippy, uneven letters, listed the four points of safety: "Check First," "Take a Friend," "Say No, Go Tell" and "Trust Your Feelings."

The riders being greeted by the students were on an annual 100-mile Ride for Missing Children. It is not a competitive ride - the bicyclists pedal together, and they stop at different schools to greet children. Their mission is to present the kids with a big, beautiful, visual reminder to be active in their own safety.

Earlier in the week, students throughout the Capital Region attended an assembly - available to any school at no charge - presented by educators at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to teach the safety points.

The center is unveiling a new web site Oct. 15 called KidSmartz.org. Programs and materials for teachers in any grade are free. The short videos on the site will be paired with lesson activities.

Checking first - or letting someone know where you are headed - is not just sage advice for children. Everyone should let someone know where he or she is headed.

"We tell them how we check in with our wives or kids before we go out for a bike ride," said first grade teacher Ira Share, a member of the Brittonkill Teachers Association. "My wife tells us where she's going to walk the dog." This is his third year riding in the event, and he has had the NCMEC educators come to Tamarac School for three years.

The students, he said "see me as a rider and a teacher and a person who cares about their safety."

College students are particularly vulnerable, said Ed Suk of the Rochester regional NCMEC office, as they may have an illusion of being safer on a campus, or their guard may be down from drinking alcohol, or they think they are capable of protecting themselves.

For Sarah Kalinkewicz, a sixth grade teacher at Loudonville Elementary School and member of the North Colonie Teachers Association, the Sept. 19 Capital District ride was her third year of pedaling for a cause. Her friend Craig Frear went missing ten years ago.

"He drove me to school every day. Our families are very close," she said. Frear went missing during the day, walking home from a graduation party, she said.

The sunny, breezy bike riding lifted her spirits. The group stopped at five different schools. Riders handed out pencils and stickers to the students, who wiggled their arms to do "the wave" up and down the sidewalk.

"This is a great day. It brings awareness. It's fostered really good conversation," said Kalinkewicz, who said she rides in the summer as a hobby.

"They won't forget this," said teacher Karen Robbins, standing behind a group of her third grade students. One hand-written sign said "Keep on wheeling." Another read "Thank you for caring."

Robbins, a member of the Shenendehowa Teacher Association, said the difficult part for young children to understand is that a stranger might not be an unfriendly person - but it still could be someone trying to harm them.

Third grader Isabella Gretzinger said she learned that it's important to say "No" even if a nice lady offers her money to help her with her groceries.

Students are presented basic information without trying to scare them. Older students are given more information including cyber safety.

"The information presented [at assemblies] ahead of time can be used throughout the curriculum," said Suk. "The day of the ride is the reinforcing spectacle. It's a big visual memory to reinforce the safety message."

This year's Greater Capital District Ride for Missing Children included a ride through the grounds of NYSUT headquarters, where staff gathered outside in the cool morning to honor the riders and pay a silent tribute to Colin Gillis, a relative of a NYSUT staff member who went missing at age 18 in Tupper Lake in March 2012.

Family members of other missing persons joined the tribute, traveling to NYSUT and placing a wreath on the grounds as the riders passed by. Many of the bicyclists held their hands over their hearts as they rode by.

Capital Region residents Mary and Doug Lyall were there for the tribute. Their daughter Suzanne, a student at the University at Albany, went missing in 1998 after getting off a bus on campus, where she was returning from her part-time job. They are active in supporting families of other missing children.

Other Ride for Missing Children events are held throughout New York as well to raise awareness, funding and provide education.

Suk said he is also a member of one of five New York task forces, which include all levels of law enforcement and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) studying human trafficking. It is a "significant issue" in abduction, he said, as people are trafficked for sex or labor.

For more information about NCMEC, contact Suk at esuk@ncmec.org. Call 1-800-THE LOST for information, to report a missing child, or to report information about a missing child.