Unique group’s fundraiser aims to help protect young victims of abuse
Mark Kastner owns a black Harley Davidson Dyna Glide and rides his bike under the road name “Joker.” With his tall frame, piercing blue eyes, and gray goatee, he looks like he would fit right in with any group of bikers cruising up and around Highway 17.
However, Kastner is the founder and president of a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who are united by more than just a common love for black leather and the open road. For the past five years, these bikers have formed the Santa Cruz chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA), an international nonprofit organization that connects bikers who are passionate about protecting kids. On March 27, Santa Cruz BACA will have their first large fundraiser as a kickoff for April, which is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Kastner founded the chapter after viewing a BACA presentation at a Harley Owners Group meeting in Alameda in 2005. The presentation “resonated with me deeply,” Kastner says, “so I found a few like-minded local guys and we decided to start a chapter in Santa Cruz.”
When abused or neglected children are referred to BACA, the group “adopts” them into their family of bikers. BACA members ride to the child’s home and present the child with a teddy bear, a blanket, and a leather vest with the child’s chosen road name.
The child is also given the phone numbers of two BACA bikers. “If they feel afraid or if there is anything going on, they can call those people and they will be there any time, any place,” Kastner says. “If we have to, we’ll park our bikes, and we’ll put a tent out in their front yard and do whatever it takes to make them feel safe.”
BACA members hope to provide support and a sense of belonging to those who need it most. “When a kid is affiliated with a group of seemingly powerful men and women, and some of them are quite big, and quite ugly, and quite scary, it goes a long way to taking their fear away,” Kastner says. “We’re all about empowering that kid so that they can get back to a good point. When they get abused, their faith and trust is taken away and they don’t know who to turn to.”
Ken Goldstein is the executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in Santa Cruz, an organization that trains volunteers to be advocates for children in the dependency court and foster care system. He agrees that developing trust is vital for neglected and abused children. “It’s not uncommon to have a kid who’s been in four or five placements in a period of two years,” he says. “So building trust is important because when that stability is gone, they’re not going to do well in school no matter how bright they may be. Their whole personal means of support are taken out from under them through no fault of their own.”
In 2009, the last year for which there is data, there were 527 substantiated cases of child abuse in Santa Cruz County—down from 700 cases in 2008. Although the statistics show a steady decline in Santa Cruz County abuse cases during the last 10 years, Kastner is skeptical. “The things I’m seeing in the world tend to make me think it’s going up,” he says. “If it’s going down, I’m all for it; that’s what we want. But it couldn’t go down far enough until it reaches zero.”
Kastner is also frustrated that there are still kids in Santa Cruz County who could benefit from BACA who are not receiving its help. He says it has, at times, been difficult to make inroads and gain traction with some of the other agencies working with abused children and their families. Nevertheless, Kastner has met with Goldstein and the two are looking to see if their organizations can work together. Goldstein says, “It’s a very different approach. We’re looking to see if there are ways we can get together.”
Kastner hopes the fundraiser will help people understand what BACA has to offer. He feels his organization can play a vital role in helping kids gain courage to overcome their abuse. Kastner tells the story of a girl who chose the road name “Creepy One,” because of her love for bugs. After visiting with the girl, the BACA members offered to accompany her to court where she was to testify against her father. “You can imagine for a little kid it’s terrifying,” he says. “It’s terrifying to go to court as an adult, for a traffic violation, much less having to go [as a child to] testify against your father. And so there were like 10 of us, and we met her down at the courthouse in San Jose, and she got the courage because she would look out and see us out there. And she could do what she needed to do.”
The first annual BACA Bash fundraiser will be held Sunday, March 27 from 2 – 7 p.m. at The Portuguese Hall, 216 Evergreen St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25/adv, $30/door. All proceeds go to BACA efforts in helping abused children locally. For more information, call 566-8080.