More than a hundred bicyclists will take off at 7:25 a.m. Friday from St. Johnsburg Fire Hall on Ward Road in Wheatfield for the ninth annual Ride for Missing Children, a 100-mile educational bike ride through Niagara and Erie counties sponsored by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Riders will take rest stops and attend pep rallies at local schools in order to educate both parents and children about prevention and services, especially services available in Niagara County. A number of teachers have volunteered to participate in the ride.
The trek will end where it started at 5 p.m., with planned stops throughout the day at Westminster Charter School in Buffalo, Lindbergh Elementary School in Kenmore, Ledgeview Elementary in Clarence, Starpoint Elementary in Pendleton, Niagara Charter School in Niagara Falls and Spruce Elementary in North Tonawanda.
At each stop riders will greet the children and help deliver safety messages and students will give riders motivation to continue their ride. Internet safety messages will be delivered by the national center’s spokes-robot “Clicky,” along with a D.J., who will lead the children in songs, safety messages and cheers for the riders.
Kathy Gust, program director for the Western New York office of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said the idea for the awareness bike rides originated in Utica in 1995, where a team of bicyclists rode from the Central New York city to Washington, D.C. to bring awareness to the plight of missing children.
She said rides, held by branches throughout the state, are held as close as possible to May 25, which is National Missing Children’s Day. Last year was the first year Niagara County was included in the ride.
“We’ve really been pushing to forge a relationship with Niagara County and law enforcement in Niagara County,” Gust said.
“Everyone rides together and it is police-escorted,” she said. “Riders ride two by two, which signifies safety in numbers. When we teach abduction prevention to children, the second rule we teach kids is take a friend with you.”
But prevention education is a year-round effort by the national center and Gust said they travel to schools throughout the year. She said a community educator, funded by a grant from the Oishei Foundation, has specifically been directed to educate Niagara County school children. They also will work with any interested community group, such as church groups or Boy and Girl Scouts.
“We teach kids how to keep themselves safe. The four rules we teach little kids is check first before going anywhere or getting in a car, take a friend with you, it’s OK to tell people no, and talk to a trusted adult,” Gust said. “We start in pre-K. Our research shows that the largest number of kids where abductions happen are between the ages of 10 and 14, so it’s important to train those kids before and continue talking to them.”
Gust said they also have websites geared for youth education: kidsmartz.org, which is abduction prevention information for kindergarten through sixth grade, and netsmartz.org, which teaches Internet safety.
“We get a lot of calls from schools who want us to talk about sexting. A lot of times kids don’t think it’s a big deal, but they don’t think about the consequences,” she said.
Gust said in addition to youth programs, they also support law enforcement throughout the year, helping police to recover missing children.
“We are also the national clearinghouse for child pornography,” Gust said.
According to the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department, the group’s Cyber Tipline serves as a mechanism for reporting child pornography, child sex trafficking and other forms of child sexual exploitation. Since it was launched in 1998, more than 3.5 million reports of child sexual exploitation have been received and more than 134 million cases of suspected child pornography have been reviewed.
Gust said they have a great relationship with law enforcement and nationally the group works with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Last year more than 125 riders, wearing purple, white, pink and teal, raised more than $35,000 for the Buffalo-based organization.
“Our ride started in Utica, shortly after Sara Anne Wood was abducted, and pink and teal were the colors she was wearing when she went missing,” said Gust. Sara Anne had been riding her bike in Massachusetts when she was abducted in 1993.
She was just 12 years old. Her body was never found, but Lewis Lent Jr., a former handyman and janitor, pleaded guilty to murdering her and was sentenced to life in prison.
Gust said they wear white for hope and purple for fallen officers.
“The white is for hope because one thing the center always says is, ‘We never give up hope.’ We never stop looking for a child until that child is found. In the Russell Mort case, Mrs. Mort actually spoke at our ride last year,” Mort has been missing for 35 years and authorities this month issued a new appeal for the public’s help in the case.
“We tell families that we will always be here for you,” said Gust. “Never give up hope.”
The national center is authorized by Congress to serve as the nation’s clearinghouse on these issues and operates a hotline, 800-THE-LOST. It has assisted law enforcement in the recovery of more than 205,000 children.
Gust said organizers prefer that only experienced riders volunteer to join. She said the maximum number of riders that can participate is 200.
To inquire about registering for the event or to find out more about programs, go to missingkids.com.
This year’s sponsors include Ingram Micro, Intense Milk, M&T Bank, Towne Auto Dealerships, Pepsi, ESM Group and Tom’s Pro Bike Shop.