Motorcycle group's mission: Protect kids from abuse
The young boy with the sandy blond hair wearing sweatpants, a hoodie and baseball cap approaches the big man dressed in a leather jacket, jeans and helmet, motorcycle nearby.
Opposites in looks, but a bond that's tight as family.
"I want to show you the ribbons I won at school for Field Day," says 9-year-old Buddy (not his real name), with a smile as he gives them to the older guy, Vulcan.
"Congrats, these are great," Vulcan replies.
Buddy smiles and gives Vulcan a hug.
It was a moving encounter between the two. Buddy says he feels a sense of belonging, of feeling safe, when he is around Vulcan, who helps take away some of his fears.
Buddy looks up to Vulcan, who is president of the Bikers Against Child Abuse of PA, South West Chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse, based in Greensburg, a group that tries to create a safer environment for abused children. They are known as "Keepers of the Children."
Soon there are two dozen bikers around Buddy — his protectors.
"As a body of bikers, we empower children to not be afraid of the world in which they live," said Vulcan, just before the group embarked on a 100-mile day ride to help spread awareness about child abuse.
Bikers Against Child Abuse is international — it has chapters in 50 states and 10 countries — and works in conjunction with local and state officials who are already in place to protect children.
It is organized with a central contact person to receive calls from referring agencies and individuals. An initial ride is organized to meet the child at his or her home or somewhere else.
None of the bikers or the children use their real names, and everything is kept confidential.
Having such a group wanting to be involved in the children's' lives is a positive thing, said Melissa Protzek, executive director Court Appointed Special Advocates Allegheny County, which works with children caught up in the legal system.
While Protzek hasn't worked directly with Bikers Against Child Abuse, she has heard of the organization.
"When community members seek to get involved and can find a way to educate themselves about the issue of child abuse and want to help protect and care for these children, that's a positive," Protzek said. "It can help create some consistency in a child's life, and for them to have a caring adult in their life is very important."
She said it has been her experience that children who experience violence or abuse tend not to disclose to anyone, but when they do, it's a momentous thing. They need a level of trust like Buddy has in Vulcan.
The bikers truly care about the children, said Buddy's mom, of Pittsburgh, after a recent day at Idlewild Park & SoakZone in Ligonier with the bikers and children they are helping. Her son made a friend and had a riding partner all day at the park, she said.
The bikers host events such as the trip to Idlewild and a holiday party. They are there anytime the child needs a companion to accompany him or her to court.
"Vulcan has been awesome," said Buddy's mother, whose niece knew about the group from a friend. "He is always available when my son needs him. ... Vulcan can get his mind off of things."
Buddy has called on Vulcan many times over the past several months — even one period when he phoned daily.
"He just needed someone to listen to him," Buddy's mom said. "They have been there for support and guidance. They truly care about the safety and well-being of children."
Buddy's mom, who also has two other children is in custody litigation with her ex-husband. A protection from abuse order was denied by the Superior Court. She can appeal to the Supreme Court, but there are no guarantees she will get the outcome she wants.
It's been a grueling process navigating the court system, she said. It's been challenging, and there are days she's felt defeated, but she isn't giving up.
"I will never stop fighting for them," she said.
A trusted friend
Vulcan and his fellow bikers say they won't stop fighting, either. They are always looking for new members — men and women from all walks of life — who are crazy about kids. Members must be 18 and submit to a federal fingerprint background check. They are funded by donations, and can be spotted by their red, black and white patch.
"These youngsters didn't have a choice in this, but we are there for them, and we let them know that there are a lot of children in this type of situation — more than people think," said Fester, who handles public relations for the South West Chapter.
They work to form a bond with the youngsters so they will have a trusting adult on their side. The bikers know they can't always solve the problem, so they will talk to the children about seeing a therapist for more help, Fester said.
"We want children to not have to fear," he said. "We encourage therapy. Sometimes they will reveal things to us. We urge them to reveal it to a therapist. We want to help them any way we can. It's sad what they are going through. We can be like family to them. They can contact us anytime, and we won't let them down."
"The bikers are nice, and they make me feel safe," Buddy said. "I can call if I need to talk and can tell them anything. I am glad they are around."
"Our experience with the bikers has been positive, and if their presence is helping the victims, we certainly welcome their involvement," said Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
Manko said the bikers at times have assisted victims in dealing with the courts and a trial. He said Zappala has always been a proponent of making court proceedings less traumatic for all victims, especially children.
Shara B. Saveikis, executive director of the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau, said the local chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse has made donations that included clothing, school supplies and shoes to the agency.
"We greatly appreciate their past partnership and support during Child Abuse Awareness Month, as well as their kind donations," Saveikis said.
Filling in the gaps
Bikers Against Child Abuse takes a firm stand against all forms of child abuse — physical, sexual and emotional. The organization was founded by John Paul "Chief" Lilly, a licensed clinical social worker and registered play therapist, who spent the majority of his 20-plus years of practice treating abused children.
He was aware that the "system" offered a lot to help a child heal, yet, there were still shortcomings and limitations to keeping children safe.
It is physically impossible for law enforcement officials to provide protection for these children 24 hours a day, he said.
Lilly noted that children who feel safe and protected are more capable and likely to tell the truth about abuse because threats made by an abuser are offset by the presence of the protective bikers.
"I have learned that wounded kids can be very resilient," said Pennsylvania Bikers Against Child Abuse state president, "Mouse."
"Through our help and nonjudgmental approach, they are empowered. A lot of us are big kids ourselves. So what better way to incorporate working with kids and riding your motorcycle," he said.
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-853-5062, email@example.com or via Twitter @Jharrop_Trib.
Levels of Intervention
Paraphrased from the mission statement of Bikers against Child Abuse International.
Level 1: Riding as a group to the child's house where the parent/guardian will be present to assist in presenting the child with a patch, stickers and a photograph with his or her new biker family. The photograph is intended as a comfort to convey the message, "I am not alone, and you don't want to mess with my family."
Level 2: If Level 1 is not sufficient to deter further abuse or harassment, several members will be sent to create a presence at the child's home, being visible at times when the family might be the most vulnerable, and to deter further abuse and to protect the children and the family, if necessary.
Level 3: A formal letter will be drafted by the chapter president or vice president in the area in which the abuser lives to explain to the perpetrator that the group is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent further abuse.
Level 4: While it is against the group's purpose to purposely engage a perpetrator, it will ask for the general geographical location of the offender, and conduct a "Neighborhood Awareness Ride," in which they will go door to door, handing out stickers to kids and distributing literature about its mission and how it functions. If any member learns the perpetrator's specific location or address, the group will withdraw to avoid any contact. Bikers Against Child Abuse does not condone, support or participate in the use of aggression, violence or physical force in any manner. If, however, any person seeks to inflict harm on a member, the group will respond with commitment and loyalty to protect that person.
Court appearances: The group will attend court with the children. The purpose for their physical presence is to help the child feel less intimidated and frightened, and subsequently give an accurate testimony regarding abuse.