The tsunami that ravaged the Thai coastline twelve years ago left widespread devastation, and the international charity Hands Across the Water (HATW) is making sure that the children left orphaned by the disaster are not forgotten. In the first days of the new year, when many of us were still lounging around in relaxed, post-Christmas bliss, a dedicated group of people gathered for what has become an annual tradition: a grueling, 800 km, 8-day bike ride through the humidity and heat of Thailand's north.
Among them was Churchill Education CEO, Tricia Velthuizen, and her husband, Randall Smith, Churchill Education co-founder, and Executive Chairman. Tricia and Randall completed their first ride for Hands Across the Water in 2014 and have now come back to do it again. 'It felt like we had unfinished business,' Tricia said. 'We knew that coming back would provide us with a different experience, even though the first one was wonderful. We also wanted to come back and do it with more grace and more style. This time, I'm more mindful of the opportunities there are to connect with others while on the ride. It still hurts, though!'
None of the participants on the ride are professional athletes. On the contrary, they are regular people from all walks of life, but with one thing in common: a commitment to the children in the orphanages that HATW has built throughout Thailand. Hands Across the Water was started by Peter Baines OAM, a former forensic specialist with the NSW Police Force. Peter was a disaster management specialist, leading teams who responded to acts of terrorism and natural disasters around the globe. Following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Peter headed up several international rotations of staff who were tasked with identifying the bodies of victims of the disaster. In this role, not only did Peter see first-hand the enormous loss of life that resulted from the tragedy, but he was also confronted with the plight of a different set of tsunami victims - the children who lost their parents and sometimes their whole families when that terrifying wall of water rolled in.
Peter knew he wanted to do something for those children, and he wanted it to be something real and enduring, not just a token gesture. The idea of fundraising bike rides was born and Hands Across the Water was formed in 2005. The charity continues to help provide food, shelter, education, and opportunities for hundreds of Thai children and their families to this day, both through the rides and other fundraising efforts.
The rides are not for the faint of heart or spirit, Peter says, but the model has proven to be particularly rewarding for all involved. Riders are asked to raise $10,000 each before they even get on the bike, and must cover their own registration costs, expenses, and airfares. The rides themselves are strenuous and exhausting, even for seasoned cyclists. For a lot of participants, it's the most challenging thing they've ever done, Peter says, but it's also the most satisfying. 'It's a great way for people to be able to give to the community, get fit, see the beautiful Thai countryside, meet other people and have an experience like no other,' Peter says. The duration, difficulty and fundraising pre-requisite are no accident either, Peter says, but designed to allow the riders time and space to truly appreciate the experience and the value of the contribution they're making. The rides finish at one of the HATW orphanages, and riders get the red carpet treatment from the kids as they pedal through the gates.
Here's some of what Tricia wrote about her last day on the bike:
There's been plenty today.
Riding into Home Hug, on the back of 800 kilometres in 8 days, there could be a sense of relief that the ride is over.
But right now, I couldn't even tell you a thing about the bikes or the kilometres.
For in my mind is only the memories of the welcome to Home Hug, in my heart is the love that turns this home into a safe haven and long life family for so many children, and in my spirit is complete gratitude for the privilege of being a member of the Hands Across the Water family.'