Elementary teacher Lisa Luyckx achieved major celebrity status when she bicycled in front of Birchwood Elementary School this morning, where hundreds of students stood on the sidewalk clamoring for her like hungry baby birds in a nest.
"MRS. LUYCKX! MRS. LUYCKX!" they screamed, holding hand-lettered signs that read "DON'T STOP BELIEVING," and "FIND ONE CHILD AT A TIME." Photographers ran around snapping photos like paparazzi at a sighting.
Luyckx, a member of the Niskayuna Teachers Association, was one of about 50 riders pedaling 100 miles to raise money and educate students about safety in the Capital District Ride For Missing Children. Six other teachers from throughout the region also rode today, sharing the wonder of a warm, sunny autumn day and clear blue sky with the grief of families who have no idea where their loved ones went.
Riders stopped at five schools en route, handing out pencils and stickers. Each school has hosted an assembly prior to the ride educating students about how to stay safe, whether on the computer or a sidewalk curb.
This is the third year Luyckx has taken the trek. Her son was a close friend of Craig Frear, a Scotia teenager who went missing 10 years ago while walking home in the afternoon. "We traveled all over creation, playing soccer," Luyckx said. "I want to honor his family … and him. I think about him all the time."
The ride is motivating for her students, she said, not only about issues of safety but also about fitness.
Mark Gatta, Scotia-Glensville TA, is a former teacher of Craig Frear. He, too, pedals 100 miles in honor of his onetime student.
Craig's mother, Ronnie Frear, rode in the family van accompanying the riders, getting out at each stop. She said the 10 years have been long and grueling.
Schodack school speech therapist Stacy Herron Wozniak, a bundle of energy, is bicycling her seventh year in the Capital District event. She helped start the Albany-area ride after her brother's wife, Audrey Herron, went missing in 2002. Wozniak has spent a lot of time with their children and was at their house overnight the night before Audrey Herron disappeared. Herron had just finished her nursing shift when she and her car have disappeared.
Wozniak recalls the ground searches, helicopter and ATV searches while she stayed with her nieces and nephew. That fall, she saw a story about the creation of the Center for Hope in Ballston Spa (Saratoga County), a nonprofit organization put together by Doug and Mary Lyall, parents of Suzanne Lyall, who has been missing from the Capital Region since 1998.
Mary Lyall said they created the center because "the more help, the less pain."
Wozniak went to Missing Persons Day the following spring and then began riding in the Utica Ride for Missing Children. She then created a ride for the Capital Region.
Each rider raises $300. "Part of your donation goes to posters. So I got posters of Audrey mailed out across the United States. That was the basis I was riding on," Wozniak said. "And then there's all these other families."
At Birchwood, the riders were reminded in posters to "PEDAL STRONG."
The next stop was several miles up the road at NYSUT, where a silent tribute was held. Family members from the van set up wreaths and held signs with the names of people missing. NYSUT staff held posters of Colin Gillis, who went missing from Tupper Lake in 2011.
From there, the cyclists rode past Forts Ferry Elementary, where students had been educated last week at an assembly on safety. At the one-story school, nearly every fourth-grader in the packed auditorium thrust their hand high when asked if they play Xbox or Mine craft or use Instagram.
"You play with other people. You're playing on the computer. You are talking to other people who could be around the corner or around the world," explained John Kelly, educator with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has offices in Rochester, Saratoga, Buffalo and Utica.
He advised the children to never give out information about where they live or go to school, and never to share passwords or phone numbers. Never respond to requests to meet offline or to send photos, he added.
"Predators surf and groom," he said. "Don't trust anyone who tries to send you gifts, turns you against your family or makes you feel guilty."
Kelly travels to schools all year, giving free presentations to students, where he stresses Internet and personal safety. Kids are taught the four mantras: "Check First;" "Take a Friend;" "Say No, Go Tell;" and "Trust Your Feelings." On Friday, Kelly was out riding with the others, who all wore teal blue, pink and white fitted cycling shirts and protected their heads with helmets.
Kelly tells students that, while they are on the computer, if anything makes them uncomfortable, sad or confused, they should turn off the screen, use the back button, tell a trusted adult and report it to the website or app. "This building is full of trusted adults," he said, sweeping his arms around the auditorium.
After riders passed Forts Ferry, the pedaled onward to Okte Elementary School in Clifton Park for water, snacks and rousing cheers. For Lauren Leuzinger, special education teacher at the school and a member of the Shenendehowa TA, it was her first ride.
"I used to cycle a lot more. This was a good way to get back into it. I do a lot of running, she said.
She does not have a personal connection with any of the missing people or their families, she said, "but working closely with children, it's an issue that needs attention."