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Cyclists pedaling to Osaka for hearing-impaired pupils

by Mizuho Aoki

Last Friday, 15 bicycle riders lined up on the campus of Meisei Gakuen School for the Deaf in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, to kick off their second fundraising charity ride to help the school purchase playground equipment.

Organized by Give a Dream a Chance, known as GDC, a voluntary group founded in 2009 by employees of AXA Life Insurance Co. Ltd., the event brought in ¥800,000 last year with a 1,200-km ride from Tokyo to Hokkaido.

This year, GDC members and other participants are cycling 920 km from Tokyo to Osaka with the aim of raising ¥3 million. As with last year, GDC will donate all of the money raised to the Bilingual Bicultural Education Center for the Deaf Children (www.bbed.org), a nonprofit organization that supports Meisei Gakuen.

“Last year, we were here to start the ride to help the school to set up a junior high school. This year, we’ll help you build your playground equipment,” said Don Kalubowila, one of the founders of GDC.

Donning T-shirts emblazoned with drawings by one of the school’s students, the riders — Tokyo-based foreigners and Japanese office workers — were greeted by the students, their parents and teachers.

Meisei Gakuen is the only private sign-language school in Japan. Established in 2008, signing is the school’s primary language for education. Thanks to help from GDC and other organizations, the school, which used to be only for kindergarten and elementary school children, opened a junior high section this spring.

“If you didn’t do the charity ride last year, we may not have had the junior high school today,” said Hiro Tamada, one of seven new students who entered the junior high this spring. “Thank you for doing the event again this year. This time for younger students.”

The 15 riders cycled in the schoolyard alongside children who happily ran around, waving their hands, before they headed off for a 7-km ride to AXA’s office building in Minato Ward.

The event was initiated last year by Kalubowila, a Sri Lankan-born Canadian national, who came to Japan three years ago.

“The moment I arrived at Narita International Airport, I decided that I will cycle across Japan. I cycled from Tokyo to Fukuoka in the first year. And last year, I wanted to combine cycling with something else. I wanted to do something different. Something to change the society,” said Kalubowila, who leads the tour.

After hearing about Meisei Gakuen from one of his colleagues, he and his coworkers decided to organize the charity event to raise money for the school.

About 15 people participated in last year’s 12-day charity ride, but it was only Kalubowila who made it all the way from Tokyo to Sapporo.

Kalubowila, a veteran cyclist who has made bicycle trips in 10 different countries — including Canada, South Korea and the Philippines — admitted that it wasn’t easy to complete the long journey. Plagued by heavy rain and stormy weather, he thought of quitting for the first time in his cycling life.

“Also, on the 11th day of the trip, my grandfather passed away. When I got the call, I thought of quitting again,” he said.

But he kept going all the way to Sapporo, where about 10 hearing-impaired local children greeted him.

“The children kept me going. I love children. When I reached the goal, I was exhausted, but when I saw their faces, I promised them to do the charity ride again,” said Kalubowila, now the father of a 9-month-old son.

Another GDC member, John Morris, also noted that they are doing the riding event again for the children.

“We used our private time to prepare for the event. So last year, we were already tired on the first day of the event. But when I went to the school to start the ride and met the children, my feeling all changed. The children were just amazing,” said Morris, also an AXA employee.

“This year, we have about 40 people taking part in the event. Among them, five will go all the way with me to Osaka,” Kalubowila said. “We also have a 7-year-old boy joining us on the second day. And we’re very, very excited about that.”

After the short ride from Meisei Gakuen, they were joined by 13 more riders at AXA’s office before taking off for the first day’s goal: Honjo, Saitama Prefecture.

They were to travel to Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, on the second day. From there the cyclists will push on through Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui and Shiga prefectures before reaching Osaka on Friday.

“I told all the riders to take the flier (which has a photo of the school’s students at the top), so that when they get exhausted and think of quitting, they can see the photo. It should make them keep going to the goal,” Kalubowila said.

Donations can be made directly to the charity at www.giveadreamachance.org