A Review of the Year 2020-2021
It is safe to say that the past year has been like no other in Willow Park. Government restrictions, lockdowns and school closures, due to the pandemic, created unimaginable challenges for the whole school community. Likewise, the Willow Wheelers had to find innovative ways to keep the Club going. Every effort has been made, albeit within government guidelines, to keep the show on the road. Consequently, committee meetings were moved online, cycles and training courses were modified to comply with government guidelines, and a ‘virtual’ 100-mile’ replaced the usual 100-Mile Charity Cycle. More importantly, funding of projects supported by the Willow Wheelers continued throughout these difficult times. Overall, it has been a productive year for the Wheelers, and high levels of support for cycling and fundraising activities confirm that the Club is alive and well.
Last September over fifty boys from Fifth Form applied for places on the Cycling Proficiency Course run by Christy and Dave. All students must complete the course before venturing out on Willow Wheeler road cycles. Despite the restrictions, and school closures, training was provided when it was permitted to do so. So, it was a great cause for celebration when two groups of Fifth Form boys went on their first ever Willow Wheeler road cycle on the 29th May. By all accounts it was a very enjoyable event, so much so, the cycles continued into June. In normal times the Fifth Form boys join the last ten miles of the 100-Mile Charity Cycle and lead the peloton back to the school. As the usual 100-Mile had to be suspended Christy organised a Challenge Charity Cycle for the Fifth Form Wheelers which was run over three Saturdays in June.
The Sixth Form Wheelers also had an eventful year. Sunday cycles resumed in September and for a while the boys enjoyed cycles to Dalkey, Croke Park the Phoenix Park, the Royal Canal, Bray and Enniskerry. All cycles were suspended in January and did not resume again until late April. In pre-Covid times the Sixth Form Willow Wheelers would have experienced a range of events such as; the annual track events and a summer barbeque in Eamon Ceannt Stadium, a hostel trip to Donegal, an Easter trip to Europe, the 100-Mile cycle and Prize Giving Night in Stradbrook Rugby Club. Apart from missing these events, they also had to adjust to the new rules of social distancing, mask wearing and cycling in smaller groups to comply with regulations. Yet, if enjoyment can be measured in levels of fun and laughter it would appear that the Sixth Form boys fully enjoyed being part of the Willow Wheeler experience despite all the restrictions.
A Sense of Community
A spirit of community lies at the heart of the Willow Wheelers ethos and it never ceases to amaze me how quickly the boys pick up on a ‘sense of belonging’ on joining the Club. As soon as they start cycling they become aware of the support network around them. For instance, there is always someone on hand to mend a puncture, give advice on bikes and cycling gear, and provide guidance during cycles. When students transition from the Junior School to First year and on to Blackrock College this sense belonging to the ‘Willow Wheeler Family’ stays with them throughout their schooling. Subsequently, some past pupils return to join the Adult Section a sub-section of the Willow Wheelers which was founded by Brian O’Neill, past president of the PPU. A number of years ago, another sub-section The Wheelerettes was formed by Caroline Caslin for mothers who wanted to continue cycling outside of the Sunday Cycles. Both the Wheelerettes and the Adult Section organise weekly cycles to accommodate different levels of ability.
Although the sections arrange their own cycles, and some trips away, they are an integral part of the club and play a vital role in supporting Club activities and fund raising events. For the spirit of community permeates all sections of the Willow Wheelers.
Projects in the Third World
Due to the pandemic, it was not possible to visit projects supported by the Wheelers in the Third World. The annual mission trip is a great opportunity for students, and adult members, to see how proceeds from the 100-Mile Charity Cycle benefit marginalised communities. Furthermore, members who have travelled on the mission trip contribute to the decision making process to decide how funds are allocated. This ensures that every cent goes to where it is needed most. Sadly, communities supported by the Willow Wheelers have suffered greatly as a result of lockdowns and other effects of the pandemic. Reports from the shanty towns of Nairobi tell of chronic food shortages because the residents can’t get out to earn meagre wages on which they rely. As a result, widespread starvation has ensued. Similar reports of hunger and disease have come from Fr. Brendan Foley CSSp who works with residents of São Paulo favelas. During the past year the Wheelers have been inundated with appeals for emergency medical and food aid. In response to the appeals, the committee decided to prioritise food and medical aid for the duration of the pandemic. A sum of €84,459 has been disturbed among communities in Kenya, Brazil, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Recipients of the funds sent video clips showing how the money has eased the burden of people in dire need.
These clips can be viewed on the Willow Wheeler Website at https://willowwheelers.club/2021-thanks-to-willow-wheelers/
Betty Nyagoha, founder of Gatoto School in Makuru slum in Nairobi, was a recipient of Willow Wheeler funds. During visits to Betty’s school she gave the Wheelers an outline of her own background and recounted many of the obstacles she faced in keeping the school open. Like the children in Gatoto, Betty grew up in poverty and suffered greatly as a child. She believed passionately in education and became a teacher. In 1994 she started Gatoto School to give the children a chance of a better future.
Today Gatoto School is one of the top ten performing schools in Nairobi, an amazing achievement when you consider most of the students come from one of the grittiest slums in Nairobi. Therefore it was with great sadness that the Wheelers learnt of Betty’s death from Covid-19 in March 2021. The Wheelers were full of admiration for Betty and have supported Gatoto School for many years.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis
Better Times Ahead
At the time of writing the government restrictions are being lifted allowing people to meet up under limited circumstances. Stories of deaths, hospitalisation, job losses, and mental health issue, caused by the pandemic, are beginning to emerge but only time will reveal the true impact of the Covid-19 virus. What has happened can’t be changed, all we can do is hope for better times ahead. With that said, the Willow Wheelers are looking forward to brighter days ahead and hope to resume all Club activities in time. Planning has already started for next year’s Easter trip in the hope that travel restrictions will be lifted. Moreover, the committee are particularly keen to involve our younger members in all the activities that they have missed out on. Hopefully the usual 100-mile cycle can take place again, sooner rather than later, as it encapsulates all that is good about the Willow Wheelers. The success of the event relies on the collective effort of members who provide a range of skills and services, and each individual effort is highly valued by the Club. As Christy says everyone does their own ‘100-miles’ whether that be ten, fifty of a hundred miles. Other members oversee the food stops, marshal the route, deal with registration, and provide essential back-up services.
The Willow Wheelers values inclusion and looks forward to involving all members in the full range of Club activities in times to come. In the meantime, fundraising will continue in June 2021 via a ‘virtual 100-Mile cycle’. Funds are needed more now than ever as our brothers and sisters in the Third World are in desperate need of help.
Finally I would like to send out my sympathies to those who have suffered losses or ill-health due to Covid-19. I will sign off with the words of Albert Einstein,
“Life is like riding a bicycle, to keep your balance, you must keep moving.”