By Gail Jokerst
Without doubt, Aretha Franklin brought the word “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” to the world’s attention with her 1960s hit song. Half a century later in Missoula, you can find other unlikely champions of this time-honored ideal – tattooed, leather-garbed Harley bikers. However, their message of respect is conveyed, not on dance floors, but at schools combating bullying.
They call themselves Bikers Against Bullies (BAB) and while they may look like a mom’s worst nightmare for her daughter to bring home, these guys are more Pomeranian than Rottweiler… providing you are not into bullying.
“We only deserve respect if we respect the people around us,” says Fred “Flash” Van de Perre, who co-founded BAB along with Ken “Jefe” Hughes. “To get respect you have to give it. Our mission is to empower kids by teaching them to embrace their diversity and respect other people’s diversity.”
It all started in 2012 when Flash offered to help raise funds so each Hellgate Elementary School District student could receive a T-shirt with the keep-an-eye-on bullying message. He also volunteered to ride into the school gym on his Harley to deliver that message in person. One look at Flash’s tattoos, jewelry, and headbands indicates why he has the right cool factor to reach these kids. Additionally, he is the parent of a 12-year-old and has a heart as big as Montana.
Flash recruited Jefe, the road captain for Missoula’s HOG (Harley Owners’ Group), to join in creating a presentation for Hellgate. They have since brought that program to over 20 schools in Polson, Dixon, Butte, Anaconda, Helena, Darby, and throughout Missoula – usually with 1,500 to 2,800 students attending. “I was very nervous the first time. I didn’t know how the kids would receive the message,” recalls Jefe. “When we were done, I felt like a rock star with the warm fuzzies. Kids hear and feel that we’re genuinely interested in them and in what they’re doing.”
The more Flash and Jefe learned about the effects of bullying – from destroying self-confidence to taking one’s own life – that genuine interest grew. “Suicide resulting from bullying is the second largest reason for youth fatalities in America,” says Flash. “More than 60 kids a day commit suicide and about 15 of those deaths are a direct result of bullying.”
The BAB presentation Flash and Jefe created lasts less than an hour and works to reverse that trend for kids facing taunts and threats at school, in their neighborhood, or online. Included are a couple of skits communicating that bullies empower themselves by putting down others and that you don’t have to be mean to feel good about yourself. “We let things flow but we always ride up on our bikes into a gym or an auditorium. And the stereo on Flash’s bike can rival anything in that auditorium,” adds Jefe with a chuckle. “Instead of telling them what not to do, we talk about the positive ramifications of their actions,” adds Flash. “We let them know you can be cool and still make good decisions. Despite our looks, dress, and loud bikes, we’re not the bad guys; we’re the parents and grandparents who live down the street.”
Their positive message that everyone is special in his or her own way resonates. These kids may have heard the same words before but never presented so effectively. The feedback from teachers, school administrators, and parents who asked them to get involved testifies to that. “They let us know their lives are better for what we’ve done,” says Jefe. “At the presentations kids come up to us, maybe because we’re not the teacher, principal, or an authority figure. The troubled kids who need help, they come up trying to find someone to reach out to.”
And kids recognize bullying behavior.
“Once we did a skit with Flash and a police officer making fun of my shaved head. Without prompting, the kids yelled out, ‘That’s bullying,’ explains Jefe. “Afterwards, a little girl came up and tugged on my vest saying, ‘I think you look good with a shaved head.’ She was all worried about my feelings. She got the message.”
Flash and Jefe were especially grateful the day that one memorable young teen pulled them aside.
“She was a “cutter” (someone who displaces emotional internal pain with self-inflicted external pain) and trusted us enough to tell what she was doing. We realized we had struck a nerve and referred her to a professional for help. She believed her parents didn’t respect or care about her,” explains Flash, who urges parents to, “be present in a kid’s life rather than absorbed with the bigger house or going on vacation.”
But, bikers involved in an anti-bullying campaign? Those familiar with the biking world understand.
“Bikers, hippies, and cowboys are a lot alike in their core values. They all believe strongly in community, protecting each other, and mutual respect,” explains Flash, who describes BAB not as a motorcycle club, but as an awareness group that happens to be mostly bikers. “They love America, God, and family. They just ride different stuff.”
He and Jefe consider themselves to be “99-percenters.” As Jefe puts it, “Most of society sees bikers as if they were the Sons of Anarchy, but only about 1 percent of bikers are Hell’s Angels, outlaws, and bandits. They may not like other bike groups but they like kids and are protective of them. They endorse what we do.”
Along with the less visible members of BAB, Jefe and Flash continue to raise funds to pay for stickers, wristbands, posters, and T-shirts tossed out at each presentation – all emblazoned with BAB’s logo. They have raised some $80,000 annually for child-focused charities in Montana and South Dakota and created a BAB website and Facebook pages that garner as many as a quarter million hits monthly.
“If a school invites us, we never turn them down,” says Flash. But unfortunately, BAB receives more presentation requests than can quickly be fulfilled since he and Jefe work full time. Jefe is an electronics technician for the city of Missoula while Flash runs a business that manufactures a flossing tool for people with braces.
Through other bikers who have met Flash and Jefe, BAB has grown nationally and now boasts 17 chapters that have reached some 100,000 kids so far. “National anti-bullying programs can cost up to $10,000. However, ours is free and we can hand it over to the schools,” says Jefe, whose 82-year-old mom is a non-riding member of HOG and BAB advocate.
As a retired second-grade teacher, Donna Hughes observed bullying occur even with her students and sees the value in reaching kids of all ages, not just teens. “Because some families have no men in the home, it’s important to have men convey this message, especially to young children,” emphasizes Donna. “This program is a whole new way to approach the problem.”
Not surprisingly, BAB has also helped the bullies themselves and changed their lives.
“We’ve received emails, Facebook messages, and letters from parents,” says Flash. One mother reporting that after seeing a BAB program, her son who had been a bully remarked to her about his changed behavior, ‘You know what, Mom? I think this is what my biker friends would want.’”
Flash’s goal is a free anti-bullying campaign that schools can adopt anyplace in the country, but they need a corporate giant to sponsor the effort. “What would you do to keep your kid alive? That answers everything. If this changes the life of a child who was gonna die, was it worth it?” asks Flash. “I’m not saying we’re the answer. But my definition of failure is never getting out there and trying.”
For more information or to make a donation, visit bikersagainstbulliesusa.com.
Pointers from BAB’s message include:
• Bullies empower themselves by putting down others.
• Never be a doormat. Stand up for yourself and for others.
• When you are confident, others feel it and respond.
• Ignore the bully either by removing yourself from the confrontation or assisting others in removing themselves.
• If you see someone is in danger, get help. Do not be afraid to talk about it.
• Be okay with who you are.
• We’re free to make good and not-so-good choices. Let’s make better choices and celebrate the good stuff that happens around the good choices.