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UTICA, NY >> The Ride for Missing Children-Central New York will embark on its 19th Ride this year on May 15.

What started as a small group of bicyclists that hoped to raise awareness for the plight of one missing child has grown into the biggest annual fundraiser for The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children – New York/Mohawk Valley Office (NCMEC-NY/MV). Will this year have just under 500 riders.

Jim Betro of Oneida is a first-year rider. He said friends of his have been riding in it for a few years and it is a great cause, so he decided to give it a try. He has been training inside with a spin bike in addition he participating in the NYC 5-boro ride on May 3. The ride is approximately 40 miles or just about half of this years RFMC.

Before signing up for the Ride, the longest Betro had ridden his bike in one sitting was 35 miles.

“I’m really looking forward to helping missing children and the excitement of being a part of something this big and important,” Betro said.

Throughout the day of the Ride, Riders stop at schools to visit with children, reminding them of the importance of personal safety. This year, after Opening Ceremonies at NYS Troop D Headquarters in Oneida, riders head to Rome, Westmoreland, Sauquoit, New Hartford, New York Mills, and Whitesboro, through Utica ending at the New Hartford Recreation Center.

Officials say the best place to watch the ride is along Genesee Street in South Utica and into New Hartford as they arrive home around 6 p.m.

Jessica and Christopher Maine of Chittenango will embark their third RFMC. They decided to start riding after the Ride went by Jessica’s school – she works at Seneca Street Elementary.

“It was an incredible experience to see so many people united for one cause,” Jessica said. “As they rode by in their matching jerseys, the crowd was cheering them on in support of their hard work and dedication. I knew then that I wanted to be a part of it.”

The Maines begin training in January with indoor cycling.

“The support we receive from students at the schools we ride by and stop at is unlike anything I have ever experienced,” Jessica said. “To see them light up, and know that for even one minute, we have brought awareness to our cause of keeping children safe is worth all of the challenges.”

Bob Carey of Rome has done the RFMC for the past seven years and is now also a member of the steering committee that helps to plan the Ride. Carey saw the Ride go by his home almost eight years ago and then signed up the next year. While it’s his eighth ride in the Utica area, it will be his 17th ride as he’s done rides in both Syracuse and Albany. Carey has been a shepherd for the Ride since his second year. Being a shepherd involves helping on training rides, and teaching participants how to ride in a group.

Besides training rides Carey also spin bikes in the winter and he takes the stairs at St. Luke’s where he works. Before becoming involved in the Ride Carey said he used to ride avidly but then had a few knee surgeries and had gone away from it.

“I really look forward to the smiles on the riders faces when we pull into a school,” Carey said. “The kids are jumping up and down with signs and we feel like the heroes for a minute – but the kids are really the heroes.”

Last year’s ride raised a record amount of $412,000. Officials hope to beat this number again this year. Last year offered another first for the Ride as they were forced to end the ride early due to severe thunderstorms after the first school stop.

“The rain won’t keep us down this year,” said Chip Hemmel, new rider co-chair. “We are excited even more than ever to be able to finish what we started last year. Many of our new riders from last year came back this year to participate. That is a huge testament to the commitment our community has to this cause. Based on the weather and it being their first year, I can see how they might not want to do it again this year. Yet here a number of them are. It warms my heart.”

To get ready for the approximate 90-mile bike ride, preparations and training happen year round. There are monthly meetings for riders and volunteers to understand the importance of why we ride, and conduct ride business like having the right cycling apparel, learning how to prepare both mentally and physically, as well as garner fundraising tips.

“Even if it’s down pouring rain people come out of their houses and businesses to cheer us on,” Carey said.

What participants learn immediately is that although they are going to ride their bikes approximately 90 miles in one day, this event is “not about a bike ride”. It is about raising awareness of the plight of missing children, and spreading a message of abduction prevention. There is also a message of hope – this group will never stop searching for your missing child. It is about a mission “to make our children safer … one child at a time”. The bicycles are simply a vehicle to help carry the message along, officials said.

From the initial Ride in Central New York, the Ride has grown to include more Rides For Missing Children across New York State – Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Buffalo. Last year there was a Ride for Missing Children held in Texas.

Joanna Premo of Rome will embark on her seventh ride, and now also works as a part of the families committee. Before signing up for the Ride she was originally in a spin class where the instructor participated. After the instructor told her about the Ride, Premo went home and told her husband that she was going to do this and she wanted a bike for Christmas. Besides her spinning class she had never ridden long distance on a bicycle before.

“It’s very therapeutic, and I’m giving back to the community,” Premo said.

The families committee makes sure that the Ride is meaningful and comfortable for the honored guests – families who continue to search for their missing child; families who have been reunited with their missing child; and families who’s child has been recovered deceased. Families participate at their comfort level. On ride day there can be anywhere between 40 and 60 family members in the families van, riders, volunteers, and others who participate by standing roadside and cheering on riders. This year on ride day there will be 33 family members from 15 families coming from as far away as, Montana, Iowa, and Tennessee.

Premo said she also enjoys being with the families. “They come up and thank us,” she said. “We give them home and they really can’t believe someone is doing this and not forgetting their loved one.”

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2014 there were 466,949 children under the age of 18 reported missing.

NCMEC-NY/MV facilitates targeted distribution of printed posters of missing children to aid in their search and recovery, and promotes awareness and education in the community and across New York state to prevent child abduction and sexual exploitation. Since its inception in September of 1995, through December of 2014 they have distributed 9.14 million posters of 9,277 missing children, and 6,644 of them are now listed as “successfully recovered.”

The needed funding it takes to run the center comes mostly from the annual Ride for Missing Children-CNY fundraiser. In order to participate in the Ride, riders must raise a minimum of $500. This money goes directly to the center to support their missing child poster distribution and community education.

Premo said she will always remember one moment from her first year of the Ride. “We were riding towards the jail (Marcy) and there were guards standing out front each with a child standing next to them saluting us as we rode by,” she said. “The last guard didn’t have a child and it was heartbreaking.”

Premo said the next few years when she rode with new riders she said she got to see the experience through their eyes.