My Brilliant Second Career: The lost girls I wanted to save

I always hoped my own struggles would help someone else. I never imagined it would be victims of sex trafficking

Published December 14, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

      (<a href=''>Alena Ozerova</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Alena Ozerova via Shutterstock)

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I remember the day my dad walked out on my mom. He left this letter for her and when she read it, she started bawling. She thought they had such a great marriage. She actually thought it was a love note when she found it. But it said he didn't want to be married anymore. There were other women involved. That trauma is one of my earliest memories. I couldn't understand it wasn't about me. I can remember being 15 and thinking, I wish I had someone to love me.  I had no idea that all this pain would become the foundation for my true calling. That took years to find out.

I was in ninth grade when I first started having sexual relationships. I was lying, sneaking out of the house, drinking several times a week. I did well in school and went to classes but I was in search of something -- an empty feeling I tried to fill up with alcohol and drugs and parties. It wasn't just about my father leaving. I'd been sexually molested when I was 6. I lost the closest boy I knew in high school when he accidentally shot himself at 17. By college I was picking up men in bars, going home with them in a blackout. I'd been used so many times I started to be like: I don't care. These guys are the ones who are being used.

I was 22 and working in hotel management when I found out my grandmother had cancer and had four months to live. She wasn't even 60 at the time, and we were really close. I decided to quit my job and move back to take care of her. The night before I left, some friends and I rented out this penthouse suite at the Hilton for a huge party. I was sniffing coke, and people were passed out all over, and that morning I went to the bathroom and my nose was bleeding. Here my grandmother is dying of cancer, and I thought, "Who are you?" I hated myself. I hated what I did. Everything about my life -- I hated it.

What happened next, I don't know how to explain it. My grandmother had started going back to church and begged me to go. I didn't want to go at all. I thought it was some crazy cult. But by the end of the service, I was asking God to take hold of my life and make me who he wants to be. Save me from myself. I was so self-destructive. I needed something bigger than me to intervene. It's impossible to describe this to someone. To be honest, I don't remember much of that day. But I felt at peace. I began to see how the stuff I went through, there was purpose in it. My role was to help other young girls.

But I didn't know what I was supposed to do, exactly. I tucked it away in my heart. My grandmother passed away, and I went back to my job in hotel management. I met my husband, got married, had two children. Being a mom teaches you about selflessness. Kids need you so much. You can't be selfish and be a good mom. I was waiting for a moment when I could finally do what I knew was my calling. One day, about four years ago, I just knew it was time to start. Nobody could convince me any different.

I began working with another girl who had a similar story. Together, we started outreach to strip clubs. We had success with it. We incorporated and became a nonprofit and developed a board of directors. About three years ago, I started hearing the term "sex trafficking" in the media. But I thought, "Well, that's something that happens over there in some other country." When I got online, I learned there was a problem in the U.S. and there was little being done to help. I went on a mission trip to Bangkok and came back with even more of a passion to help people here. I contacted Shared Hope International, a leading group fighting sex trafficking in the U.S., founded by former Rep. Linda Smith. They compiled an extensive national report on domestic minor sex trafficking that showed how so many girls were being lost in the system or juvenile detention. It got a lot of media attention. I called their offices and told them we had this little nonprofit ministry and were considering opening a shelter, and they came alongside us and supported us financially and allowed us to ask questions as we launched.

I met with Linda Smith early on, and she said something that has always stood out. She told me, "These girls don't identify as victims." She was trying to show me the reality. These girls aren't always the lovable types. They might cuss at you and spit at you. At the time I thought, why would anybody be unappreciative? But after two years of running a shelter for domestic minors I can tell you she was right. These girls don't want to be poor pitiful little victims. They bond with their pimps. They see themselves as strong. And they are. They're survivors.

Right now, we have two shelters. One is for minors and one is for girls over 18. "Sex trafficking'" is the legal term. Some shelters call it survival sex. Some places call it child prostitution. We don't use that term because we think it's a child that has been prostituted. So, the way the law reads, if you're under 18, you don't have to prove forced fraud or coercion in a sex act. If anything of value has been exchanged in a commercial sex act -- it doesn't have to be money, it could be a runaway out on the street who was put up in the Hilton for the week -- that is considered sex trafficking. Most of our girls come to the house from referral systems -- law enforcement, social workers. Usually she's been in and out of juvenile detention centers more than one time.

People always want to know the numbers of girls out there. The U.S Department of Justice says over 100,000. The Center for Missing Children will say definitely over 100,000, but it could be up to 300,000. Until we have more trackable data, these numbers are going to be thrown out there. I like to just tell people, think about that one girl. Think about the four we can take in our program. Each girl represents a life.

We have a really structured program. We home-school them. They get four hours of education, two hours of life skills each day -- everything from making jewelry to sewing. They make craft projects and keep 100 percent of what's sold. They go to counseling. They take trips off-site. Some of the girls do equine therapy. Some do art therapy. Some do cheerleading, basketball. In the evening they have about two hours of free time. In the past year, the longest we've had a girl stay is eight months. And the shortest is two weeks.

People ask about the role of religion, and it's not like I try to coerce them because I'm a Christian. But I'm definitely open with my experience, and what's helped me, and that's my faith. I want to use my story to help them know that they can overcome this.

I went to this nonprofit grant-writing workshop and all these people were complaining about how money wasn't coming in like it used to. We've doubled our money from last year. It's funny how things have always worked out for us. When we decided to launch Hope House, we had enough to pay the deposit and the first months' rent, but that's it. We had no promise of money. But we've always made it. We plan. We budget. We're very frugal and smart about donations and we get a lot of services and in-kind gifts. We run the whole program for under $150,000 a year. Next year our budget is about $200,000 because we needed a little more. But the recession really hasn't hurt us.

We continue to do strip club outreach. We make calls to women who advertise on Backpage ads. We work with law enforcement in the city. If the girl is a minor, we give the information over to law enforcement so they can do a raid. One of the girls we called last spring had been missing for a year. Her mom had no idea where she was. She was in a hotel room by herself. We called her ad. Her pimp had just beaten her up. She was 19. She had $50 and that was it. That night we got her on a plane and got her back to mom. She did have a relapse and went back to the pimp for a brief time, but she maintained communication with our outreach director. She started college this spring, and she's so amazing. I think we need to understand that relapse is a part of the healing process. Too many times, people are like: Oh, she backslid. But working with teen girls in this population we have to understand that, sometimes, they do want to go back to their pimp for a brief time. They'll try again later. We'll be here. We're not going anywhere.

We've had minors who feel like they made this choice themselves. They think, this guy presented an opportunity, and I took it. They don't understand that they were victimized. We had a 12-year-old whose ad said she was 22. Or I've talked to a 22-year-old who says that she's choosing this life, but when you hear her story -- she's been sexually abused, she's been gang-raped. So what led to that choice? With every adult prostitute I've met, none of them have said this is what I always wanted to do. They've always had some messed-up situation at home. Sometimes it's all they know. I had a girl tell me last week, my mom was a prostitute, my grandmother was a prostitute. She was 15 years old.

When the girls are working it's easy for them to disassociate. That's not even them. It's a different person. They often get more upset when they talk about their mom. It's been really eye-opening to see the loyalty these girls show their mothers. Most of these girls, their fathers aren’t in the picture. But even the moms surprise me. They never call, never write. It's like, here's my kid, so glad it's not my problem anymore. And these girls still say, "My mommy sent me a letter and it never came." Or, "Mom is so busy, she's really tired after work, she doesn't want me to wake her up by calling." The reality is, Mom doesn't care.

But I've also seen so much hope in these girls. Everything they've been through, and they're still here. You'll hear a story and think, this is the worst story I've heard. And then I'll hear another one that is worse than that. They've been through so much trauma, but they're still smiling. When they come in, their makeup and nails are done. They're in heels. It's so amazing when I see them just laughing, just wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Last year we took one girl to the Fun Depot, this place where you race cars and bumper boats. She'd been a prostitute since she was 12 years old. She was like, "I feel like a kid when I'm here."

I look back at my own life and I think, would I change anything? I probably wouldn't. If I hadn't been through these things, maybe I would be more critical. Maybe I would be more judgmental. I think of all the times people could have given up on me. But now, I'm here and I love that I can make an impact. All of our stories and our journeys, they might not be what we would have chosen. But what can we learn from it?

As told to Sarah Hepola.

By Emily Fitchpatrick

Emily Fitchpatrick is the founder of On Eagles Wings Ministries and the Hope House. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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Alcoholism My Brilliant Second Career Sex Work