It was just after the 2011 triple disaster and Rob Williams wanted to do something to help. He also, he said, patting his stomach and chuckling, wanted to lose some weight.
“The earthquake had just happened that March, and my friends and I wanted to do something about it. It seemed like a good way to kill two birds with one stone,” he said at an informational meeting for Knights in White Lycra (KIWL), a group of cyclists humorously named for The Moody Blues 1967 single, “Knights in White Satin.” The group rides over 500 kilometers once a year to raise funds for a designated charity.
Their first year, 2012, KIWL raised 2.7 million yen for the Save Minamisoma Project, a volunteer group that delivered food and drinking water to the residents of temporary housing in Minamisoma in the months and years after the disaster. The second year, the Knights supported OGA for Aid, a Minamisanriku-based non-profit, and welcomed their first female rider, Angela Ortiz, OGA for Aid’s executive director.
“In 2014, the 5.5 million yen we raised that year built this vegetable processing facility in Minamisanriku,” Williams said pointing to a picture of a white metal shed. “To this day it still employs people in the region. They still use that as a commercial venture, and we’re proud to say we’ve left a legacy in Minamisanriku.”
Five years later, the Knights are still pedaling and will focus for the second year in a row on Mirai no Mori (Future of the Forest), a non-profit that offers outdoor programs to children living in institutions. Started in 2011 and nearly all volunteer themselves, Mirai no Mori gives abused, neglected and orphaned children the chance to experience nature through their summer and winter camps.
“The children deal with the effects of trauma,” explained Kazue Oka, Mirai no Mori’s executive director and sole employee. “Most of them do have parents, but they can’t live with them. It’s common for the children to be one or two grades behind in school.”
Mirai no Mori centers their activities on three core elements: outdoor activities to challenge the children and help them gain confidence; English study and practice in order to broaden their views, and positive role models who will be good mentors and help them become happy and successful young adults.
Last year, the Knights raised over 10 million yen, three million more than their goal, from their overall activities in support of Mirai no Mori, which helped send 20 children to camp for three years.
“Our hope for this year is to send kids to winter camp,” Oka said. “The Knights really open up so many doors. After one event, a little boy who almost never spoke said, ‘I did it.’ He was so proud,” she said with a smile. “That’s what we’re after.”
KIWL hope to help send 25 kids to three years of winter camps with any extra funds shunted to Mirai no Mori’s Leader in Training (LIT) program. “The camps give the children the opportunity to overcome fear, build self-confidence and learn vital life skills they will need in adulthood. The LIT program gives the older teenagers supervisory training and development as they near the end of their time in the institutions and go to the big wide world without any support,” said Williams.
This year 45 riders will pedal their way north from Tokyo to Ichinoseki where Mirai no Mori has a camp. Williams is quick to emphasize that anyone is welcome to join the Knights whether they think they are a cyclist or aren’t.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are at cycling. We want you to join us and be part of this experience, and we’ll help you get up to a sufficient physical level if you don’t feel you’re there at this moment,” he said.
However, there is one important caveat.
“Our objective is not just the 500 km ride. If people come just to do the ride and have a four-day break from their job, they’re in the wrong place. That’s not what we’re about. It’s a charity event which happens to be a cycle ride,” said Williams.
Each rider commits to raising 100,000 yen, training in preparation for the 550 kilometer/four-day ride, helping to organize the ride, introducing the event to their corporation and being a team player. In addition, riders and supporters commit to attending additional events – quiz nights, mini-rides, along with craft beer and wine tastings – throughout the year with every coin going directly into the charity bank account.
“We’ve raised 25.6 million yen since we started,” said Williams. “We never dreamed that we could raise this much. It’s all due to the people that participated and the efforts they made to do the fundraising. It’s amazing really.”
Upcoming Knights in White Lycra Events
24-hour Relay Around the Imperial Palace – Cycle, Jog or Walk
Friday, April 7th and Saturday, April 8th
Knights in White Lycra Annual Ride
Thursday, May 25th through Sunday, May 28th
(Registration is closed for this year.)
Visit their website (kiwldonations.org) to find out about more events throughout the year, make a donation, or find out how to get ready for next year’s ride!
Mirai no Mori: mirai-no-mori.jp/?lang=en