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Sarasota Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2021 2 months ago

Sarasota Mom's TikTok message inspires safe gaming space for bullied kids

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Linda Espada took to TikTok to decry the bullying her son Jacob experienced on Fortnite, and it spawned something positive.
by: Nat Kaemmerer Staff Writer

Linda Espada thought she would be a cool mom who always kept up with what her kids were up to in video games and everything, but when it comes to son Jake’s passion for Fortnite, the Sarasota woman was a little lost. That’s typically the territory of her husband and sons. 

But when it comes to the way Jake is treated online, she’s very aware. Jake, 13, has cerebral palsy and has faced bullying his whole life because of it. Logging on to play a multiplayer online game such as Fortnite, where players use headsets to talk to each other in real time, is just a continuation of that, she said. 

“My quote through the years like just telling people like, ‘Hey, you know, I am somebody too,’” Espada said. “(Just telling people), ‘I might be disabled and I might be different but I'm a person and just like you and I want to do all these things just like you’ … but the bullying goes on. And the bullying is crazy, crazy.”

Jake often logged on to play but more often than not, would find himself alone again after another player heard him through the headset and realized that he was different. Sometimes, they wouldn’t leave without a few insults lobbed his way, too. Jacob struggles with communication due to his cerebal palsy, but he is a good Fortnite player. He couldn’t understand why he kept getting kicked off the game. So Espada, a fed-up mom who just wanted her kid to be able to join in on the fun, took to her TikTok @LuvlyLnda for a rant. 

“I've been doing this for almost 13 years,” Espada said. “Jacob has been bullied his whole life. I know that it's not obviously always parents, but I do believe that a big part of it starts at home. It was just really more of a letter to parents to say, ‘Hey, can you please teach your kids not to be afraid of somebody that's different. They want the same things. They might speak differently, look differently, but chances are, they're just like you.’ I think people just don't know how to respond to a disabled person or, a special needs kid that might be their age … I just ask them to please give him a chance.”

To her surprise, her TikTok quickly garnered thousands of views and comments. She had hit a nerve and had responses flooding in from other families with children with autism or cerebral palsy like Jacob, as well as responses from around the world. She even got responses from kids who related to being bullied themselves. 

“I'm overwhelmed by the response, to be honest,” Espada said. “I know I'm not the only one. I think maybe I'm just the only one who said something.”

Still, there were some nasty responses. Espada’s account got reported so many times that she was temporarily banned from posting despite not having any content that would be inappropriate. Bullying continued, stuffed in between supportive comments on her videos. But mostly, it has been a good response. Espada said she desperately wants to keep this going to be able to create a safe space for bullied kids to be able to come and game together. 

“It is difficult because I am trying to do good and I think there's so much good that could come from this platform,” Espada said. “I have people from all over the world, believe it or not, Australia, England, London, Croatia, Russia, Italy, Germany, all of these kids reaching out to me that are experiencing the same thing and love what we're doing.”

Jacob's dad goofs off with a Joker toy while his son plays Fortnite.

One person the family connected with was Tucker Fegley, a fellow gamer from Pennsylvania who streams his gaming on Twitch. Fegley has since started streams that are monitored by friends who make sure things stay positive, which Espada appreciates because she said it’s exhausting to vet people who want to play with Jacob to make sure they won’t get on and bully him. Fegley now streams every Wednesday at 10 a.m. and Jacob is often there, too. Espada has started to try streaming with Jacob on Twitch at jacob12308 and hopes to be able to create a space where kids can game without bullies, regardless of talent. 

“He has a couple of favorites that we have met, really great people,” Espada said. “So now he does have people to play with which is awesome. That's what it is, a safe space where I don't worry about them making fun of him.”

Fortnite is far from Jacob’s first brush with video games. In the past, he’s played plenty of Batman and Avengers games and Gears of War, but the main gravitation right now is Fortnite, which he plays split-screen with his brother when he can’t game with friends. Isaiah, 8, was the one who got the boys into Fortnite. 

“I'm just glad that something good came out of it and I hope that we can keep it going,” Espada said. “Ultimately, I would love to create a large space for these kids to come and game together, being their authentic self, not having to worry about being bullied or made fun of. That's the ultimate goal. Right now we are creating a small space for them to come weekly to stream.”

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