Thousands unite, cycling in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Representing Toyota, I was warmly welcomed into the “Love Bubble.”

I began working for Toyota Financial Services in April 2016 in the Corporate Communications department. In addition to public relations, I was tasked with the development of campaigns for philanthropic work. My first assignment: AIDS/LifeCycle, a fully supported, 7-day bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money and awareness in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

I’ve heard of this bike ride before, but little did I know that my involvement in AIDS/LifeCycle would be such a transformative experience – both professionally and personally. This was Toyota’s second year sponsoring AIDS/LifeCycle, which benefits both the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Thanks to the efforts of Toyota’s San Francisco region, we were able to provide 50 brand new vehicles for medical, media, safety, production crew, and executives along the 545-mile route. This sponsorship saved the nonprofit an estimated $30,000, allowing them to put funds directly to the cause rather than renting more vehicles.

In addition to the vehicle sponsorship, I wanted to be more directly involved with the people riding and volunteering for AIDS/LifeCycle. In my short time at Toyota, I’ve seen that this company genuinely cares about the communities it supports and values diversity and inclusion.

So how could I engage more directly with this community? Go on the ride myself.

Unfortunately I did not bike the 545 miles – at least this year – but I went along the route, stopping at rest areas and camps all week, to engage with as many participants as I could.

My usual morning: wake up; grab my bag of Jelly Belly Sport Beans, my iPad, and big straw hat. It was going to be a long day in the sun. At both official rest stops and scenic points along the route, I’d stop to encourage cyclists and offer them Sport Beans, energizing jelly beans that may give them a boost of energy to keep cycling to the next stop. The Sport Beans, courtesy of Toyota, had a sticker that included #LoveDrives, a new social media campaign that we launched at this event. The mission behind #LoveDrives is to show Toyota’s commitment to diversity in various communities.

One of my most memorable experiences handing out the Sport Beans was near the top of one of the Evil Twins, the infamous hills on day four of the route. I had pulled over and heard a woman’s voice: “I can’t do it! I’m not going to make it!” Her friend said, “Yes you can. You can do it. Remember the deal we had?” I got out of my car and saw two cyclists. One of the cyclists was being incredibly challenged by the Evil Twin, but her friend did not leave her side, encouraging her all the way. I asked her what her name was. “Malikah,” she said. “Ok, Malikah, you can do this! You’ve got our support. Here: want some energizing Sport Beans? Maybe they’ll give you a little boost.”

Prior to training for AIDS/LifeCycle, Malikah did not know how to ride a bike. But that didn't stop her. She learned how to ride and committed to doing something powerful in her father's memory for the first time in her life.

While all I could offer was encouragement and some jelly beans, I hope that I contributed to her achievement. Each day was just that: a small achievement as each rider got closer and closer to LA. Every day was very much a team effort. It took the encouragement, support, dedication, and love from everyone involved. And that’s when I started to understand what people meant by the “Love Bubble.” I was becoming part of the family.

In addition to the jelly beans, I used an app on an iPad to take branded photos and GIFs throughout the day. The overlay had a cool visual of a cyclist heading down the California coast and also promoted the #LoveDrives campaign. People in the photo would then have it sent to them via text message. From there they could easily share with others via text, email, or social media.

At camp each night, I set up a canopy tent with string lights. I ran a printer that was hooked up to Instagram. Anytime someone hash-tagged #LoveDrives on any photo they took – whether it was on their own phone or one I took on the iPad – it would automatically get sent to the printer for a hard copy print-out. I also offered participants vouchers for $500 off of a new Prius liftback.

The coolest use I saw of this was when a couple cyclists took their print-outs and began writing messages on them. I asked them what they were writing: thank you notes to their donors. It was yet another awesome moment to see how involved each person was, and to hear each unique reason of why they ride. And if I could be present as rep from Toyota to make their experience with AIDS/LifeCycle any better, all my work was beyond worth it.

Thank you to Toyota for having me on this assignment, and thank you to the entire team at AIDS/LifeCycle for warmly welcoming me into the “Love Bubble.”