The Bay skate park seeks to be a refuge for Lincoln’s at-risk kids
Story, photos and video by Erica Nett, NewsNetNebraska
Although it started as a skate park, The Bay always was intended to be something more. And now with help from a local non-profit organization and volunteers, The Bay has evolved into something more: a refuge for at-risk kids, including young girls who are susceptible to becoming victims in the sex trafficking industry.
Mike Smith founded The Bay in 2011 because he loved to skate and wanted to help the young people of Lincoln. It opened originally in Gateway Mall as Bay 198. Smith is a motivational speaker who travels nationwide to inspire youth by talking about bullying, substance abuse, leadership and how they should pursue their passions.
“Mike wanted to give youth, especially young men, somewhere to go that was safe where they could figure out what they are passionate about, somewhere they weren’t getting in trouble,” said Smith’s wife, Amber, who helps him manage The Bay while he is traveling. “He’s always had a heart for that kind of thing.”
The Bay opened at its current location at 2005 Y St., a few blocks east of the UNL campus in March 2013, and serves not only as a skate park, but as a place for youth of all ages to hang out and spend time in a safe and fun environment. It was created to be a place for Lincoln youth to pursue their passions – skateboarding, art, music or whatever they choose.
Now The Bay has become a drop-in center. It has a full outreach team that works with at-risk youth or runaways and girls who have been sexually exploited or trafficked. The Bay is also for the general public. Part of the building is under construction and will feature an art gallery, a concert venue, a coffee shop and mentoring programs when the remodeling is complete, but until then, it remains open for skating and other activities.
In 2012 The Bay partnered with I’ve Got A Name, a non-profit organization founded by Bob Burton, senior associate athletic director at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Burton started the non-profit organization in 2009 to create public awareness about child exploitation and sex trafficking. He became inspired to make a difference after attending a presentation on human trafficking.
“Our church was on a campaign of ‘What do you want to do in the next 10 years of your life?’ and something I had really been struggling with is ‘Where is my niche, where’s my interest and what would keep me passionate,’” Burton said. “I went to a presentation and the light just went on. The [thing] that resonated with me the most was little girls ages 10 to 14 that are being raped, 20 times a day, every day. [I said] enough is enough. If you can’t do something now, then what is it you are going to do with your life? I needed to do something more; I needed to be someone that was serving others.”
The next day, Burton immediately started his plan to do something about this issue. Eventually, his group, “I’ve Got A Name,” was born. Today, it raises money to support national and international organizations that prevent, protect, rescue and restore those who are threatened or are victims, and offers prayer and hope for the broken and all who are impacted, Burton said.
One of the most important things that “I’ve Got A Name” does for The Bay is provide money to pay for a full-time outreach director.
Nikki Siegel, the outreach director, has been doing social work and street outreach for almost 10 years and has been with The Bay since it was founded.
Siegel’s upbringing gave her the inspiration and the connections to be successful as an outreach director.
“When I was a youth, I was in foster care and in a bunch of group homes,” Siegel said. “When I was an adult, I went back to work in the group homes that I lived in and I loved it and loved working with the girls. I felt like I needed to help them transition to adulthood, so I moved to street outreach so I could meet them on the street, get them into services and watch them grow.”
Siegel goes directly to the streets every day to look for young people who might be at risk. She visits parks and bus stops and talks with school guidance counselors.
Siegel has been doing outreach long enough to know that sex trafficking is a local problem and not only an international problem like many people think.
“Lincoln is kind of a small community so when I find girls that have been sex trafficked or sexually exploited it looks a little different because it’s kind of behind closed doors,” Siegel said. “Usually it’s in hotels and usually it’s in apartments and usually it’s online, so it looks a little different than it would be when you think of sex trafficking, but it’s still happening.”
Several girls share their experiences of sexual exploitation in Lincoln in this audio, which is based on actual accounts (Courtesy of ivegotaname.com)
Siegel works with many girls of a variety of ages. The amount of time she works with each varies with each situation.
“There’s a lot of things that go into sex trafficking and sexual exploitation,” she said. “There’s a lot of messy violence issues and being so attached to the guy and not knowing any other way. So it’s really hard for them to come out of it. You have to kind of love them where they are for a long time before the get out of it for themselves.
In addition to doing street outreach and providing resources and services to victims, The Bay provides a place for young girls to go, in an effort to keep them off of the streets and thus minimize their chances of becoming a victim of exploitation or sex trafficking. One of the ways The Bay does this is through Girl’s Club, which meets every Monday night at The Bay and is open to girls of all ages.
Girl’s Club started because many young girls were coming to The Bay to hang out, but the staff realized that there weren’t a lot of things to keep them interested. The Bay staff wanted to create an atmosphere where girls could do things that they enjoyed. At Girl’s Club, they can get help with their homework, enjoy a nice dinner, play games, have dance parties and do other activities.
Two young Lincoln girls talk about a day at Girl’s Club:
According to Smith, research shows that young girls who are below the poverty line are at risk for being trafficked or exploited and usually run away, finding themselves in a situation where they are vulnerable to exploitation.
“We decided that if we could figure out a way to stop that early and mentor these girls, empower them and give them self-confidence and self-esteem then we want to do that in every way possible,” Smith said. “We wanted to give them a safe place to go where we can talk about healthy relationships, we can talk about problems at home, how maybe we can work through those, and connect them with any resources they may need in the community and empower them as girls and let them have fun and be kids.”
According to Smith, her family served as that encouragement, influencing her and making a big difference in her life.
“My parents told me that I could do anything; they never once told me not to dream or that I couldn’t do something bigger than myself,” Smith said.
But Smith understands that not all of today’s youth have that same hope and encouragement.
“How are they supposed to believe that they can do anything if no one has ever told them that they can?” Smith asked. “If we can speak into someone’s life that they are so much bigger than they think and that they do have the talents and the abilities and the strengths to do really great things, that would be huge.”