Heather Lichthardt is a child abuse survivor who is desperate to help. Driven by her experience and an intense passion to aid victimized children, Lichthardt founded the local chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse.
Yes, those kind of bikers.
They’re an international organization thousands strong who use their compassion to empower children. The bikers can use physical appearance to intimidate victims’ abusers.
“Do we look like a bunch of people who you would want to go through to get to a kid?” Lichthardt asks.
Lichthardt took a painful episode and turned it into something that can benefit the community, said Bill Hilton, BACA’s state president.
“It’s amazing that she’s found her calling,” said Troy Lichthardt, Heather’s husband and president of the local BACA chapter.
Lichthardt, 43 and a delivery driver, was growing up an only child outside of Los Angeles when a family friend physically and sexually assaulted her for three years. He told her no one would believe her if she reported him. He was right, she said.
Her victimizer was never charged, but he left her feeling “horrible” and “dirty” with self-esteem issues that took years of counseling to correct. He died years ago.
In 1996, at 25, she fled California for a “better life in a better part of the country” — and for a relationship that didn’t work out.
Lichthardt moved around western Wisconsin working as an inspector at Northern Engraving in Lansing, Iowa, and as a bartender and server at supper clubs before settling in La Crescent with Troy and the couple’s three children when they married in 2007.
Three years ago, Troy told her to find a hobby beyond their shared interest of motorcycles. At about the same time, she stumbled across BACA through a friend’s Facebook page.
“I found a lifestyle. I found my purpose,” she said. “This organization has forever changed me.”
It’s the organization’s mission to support children who are the victims of physical, sexual and mental abuse.
Every child has different needs to help them cope and heal, Lichthardt said. For some, it’s therapy. For others, it’s piano or horse riding lessons the bikers can help arrange.
For the children frightened at night, the bikers will stand guard outside the family home. For those frightened during the day, they’ll be there in court as the child testifies against their attacker.
Whatever can empower. Whatever makes them feel safe. Whatever can help.
“It’s about the kids, not the perpetrator,” Lichthardt said.
BACA can get involved with any documented abuse case. Members of the Big River chapter — just the second in Wisconsin — are looking to help.
“We’re here,” Lichthardt said.
All members — which, at fewer than 10 locally, are not enough, Lichthardt said — are volunteers and pay for their own gas and wear on their motorcycle.
They must undergo a federal background check, though a clean record isn’t a requirement — Lichthardt was convicted in 2011 of punching a woman during a bar fight — but cannot include crimes against children.
As child liaison, Lichthardt is the first member of the group who will meet with the abused child.
Each are given a jean vest with a patch, a blanket, a teddy bear and a road name, plus two bikers who are available anytime — day or night.
“We raise them up and give them a sense of family,” said Lichthardt, who goes by “Aych” on the road.
Members of Wisconsin’s Maritime chapter since 2005 have worked eight cases, standing with abused children as young as five and old as 19 in court, at school and outside of their home for protection, said Hilton, who also serves as chapter president. Each case resulted in a conviction.
Hilton, an inventory specialist, said Lichthardt’s ambition will help her chapter make a difference.
“What I see in her is a drive to do the mission to help abused children feel protected in the world they live in,” he said.
Lichthardt inspired Jody Wickler to join BACA after they met at the La Crosse Area Harley-Davidson store.
“She’s dedicated every waking moment to this,” she said. “She wants to help these children.”
Her husband agrees, though he admits he’s biased. Lichthardt recruited him to BACA, though he’s grown to share her passion for the organization as chapter president.
“From the path she’s endured, she’s doing this to empower other people,” said Troy, a cabinetmaker who goes by “Kuhn” on the road. “It’s never been about her.”
The Lichthardts say it’s not about the bikers, either. It’s about the children, they said. They’re the real heroes.