By EMMALEE C. TORISK
Shannon Benzenhoefer is well aware that membership in the local chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse International that she is working to start will be the furthest thing from easy.
It’s not a “fun” club, she explained, but it is necessary. The organization empowers children with documented cases of abuse to take back their own lives and to live without fear, through the physical and emotional support of members.
“When it comes down to it, the things that we will encounter, the people we will see and meet, it’s going to be heart-wrenching,” said Benzenhoefer, who lives in Struthers. “To say it’s going to be easy to do — it’s not. You can never take away what happened to that child.”
Still, more than 35 people — bikers, riders and supporters — already have expressed interest in joining the local BACA chapter, and its first meeting is scheduled for Aug. 3. Benzenhoefer said she became serious about taking the steps to start it once she realized that the area lacked a nearby chapter; the nearest existing one is several hours away.
She added that this initial action came about a year after Teddy Foltz died Jan. 26, 2013, at age 14. Teddy, a victim of child abuse, had lived only a few blocks away from her and her husband, Mike Benzenhoefer. The couple didn’t know Teddy personally, but the situation hit too close to home.
“No one seemed to know this was going on,” Benzenhoefer said.
Benzenhoefer is hopeful this fledgling BACA chapter will help to give the area’s abused children a voice, and also help them to survive, both physically and emotionally, one of the most horrific situations of their young lives.
Once the chapter is firmly established, each participating child will be assigned two members who will be available to that child whenever they’re needed; all members must be at least 18 years old and pass a federal background check, among other requirements. Both men and women are welcome.
Children essentially are adopted into the “biker family,” Benzenhoefer said, and they receive a biker name, along with a vest, a blanket and a teddy bear that every member of the chapter has hugged.
The children are told to hug the bear any time they feel afraid or alone, and also that if it “runs out of hugs,” members will come back to give it more. It’s a way for children to share their feelings and their desire to have members with them without actually admitting it.
Members also can follow children to school or to court if they’re scared to go, and even sit outside of their homes if they’re afraid. Despite the uncertainty inherent in such an undertaking, members must be committed and there “for every step of the way,” Benzenhoefer said. This commitment is also one that is independent of weather — members show up on their bikes even in the rain and snow — and time.
“When they call, we’re there,” she added. “There’s really no way to gauge if you’re going to get called at 4 o’clock in the morning. Your lack of sleep is nothing compared to that child being terrified and not being able to sleep. That child comes first.”
Benzenhoefer noted that BACA helps to shoot down the often negative stereotype of bikers, but that the “hard exterior” isn’t at all reduced during their interactions with children. BACA isn’t “about coddling them,” and it teaches them that they’re powerful, too, she said.
Kelly Plummer of Hubbard, Teddy’s godmother, said a local BACA chapter is much needed. Though its existence might not have prevented Teddy’s death, it likely would have helped Teddy and his two younger brothers to speak up against the abuse happening in their home.
She recalled how frightened his brothers were when they were called in for questioning, and said BACA members’ being present could have assuaged that fear.
“Like any little kid, they were so very scared,” Plummer said. “They didn’t know anybody.”
The organization also helps to ensure that abused children don’t “fall through the cracks” and that they’re not left to fend for themselves in an abusive environment, said Bob Pelar of Boardman. He added that he’s hoping to get the local chapter up and running as soon as possible to “do some good around here.”
“A lot of times, nobody wants to get involved,” Pelar said. “[The local chapter] will help some kids, and help maybe change their lives.”
For more information, contact the Benzenhoefers at firstname.lastname@example.org.