Q: What unique approach do you bring to the table in your helping role(s)?
A: I think the unique approach that I bring to the table is my lived experience of being a survivor of the commercial sex trade (sex trafficking), being in long-term recovery (I’ve been clean and sober for 12 years), and my experience working directly with women for the past six or seven years.
Before I developed Bags of Hope as an outreach ministry, I volunteered for organizations. I just had this feeling – this drive inside of me – to give back. I used to go to halfway houses and cut hair for free. I’m a hairdresser by trade. Then I had this other urge to go into an organization that was developing called Amirah. They’re a safe home in the North Shore area of Boston. I did not know I was a survivor, and I had heard about a safe home opening for women who were coming out of trafficking. I was drawn to it. So, I started volunteering there. Time went on, I was healed, and I found that I was a survivor of trafficking. That’s when everything changed. I started developing these bags with toiletries in them – soaps, shampoo, conditioner – things I knew I’d need when I was on the street or coming out of a program. You have nothing, usually. I started giving them to women on the streets and to programs that needed them. Then it developed into a non-profit because people were getting involved. People were giving me money and items. I was like, “Okay, this is getting serious”. I had to develop this into something. It became Bags of Hope, and from there, it developed into mentoring and groups.
Again, very organically, I started wanting to help the women who were still out on the streets or in programs, and let them know they were survivors, and there was a better way. For the first five years of my recovery, I didn’t know I was a survivor. I kept operating in a victim mindset. I kept operating in unhealthy relationships. I wasn’t making good choices. I couldn’t figure out what the connection was – what was wrong. Once I became healed, I found out what happened to me: I was trafficked and I didn’t choose that. The man I met groomed me so good – and brainwashed and manipulated me so well – that he made me believe I chose to become a prostitute. Once I found out that wasn’t true, I had to go back and tell the other women. So, I started running groups in the halfway houses. So many women would come up to me and say, “I have the same story. That’s my life. My problem is, I’m in this halfway house and I’m broke. I can’t buy cigarettes or a bus pass. And I go back out and have sex with somebody for money, and then I feel so ashamed I get high. Then I get kicked out of the program and I’m homeless again”. They stay in this cycle. I started realizing how powerful shame is in these women’s lives, and how that kept putting them back out on the street or getting high. So, sharing the story became very evident. People kept asking me to share and raise awareness about trafficking. Helping the general public realize the link between substance abuse, trafficking, and prostitution is so big. People don’t think trafficking even happens. They don’t even understand what it is. I feel like we’ve come such a long way. A lot of people now know and understand. The media is covering it. It’s in the news. It’s online. Sex trafficking doesn’t just happen in other countries.
Coming alongside the women we’ve met is really cool. Because they’ve been sober now for two or three years. They’re empowered. They know they’re survivors. They’re sharing their stories.
I’ve written a book, which is another arm of what we do. I’ve given out probably more than two hundred copies. When I go to events and share, I sell the book and ask for a little bit more money so we can give it out. Once the women read it, the lightbulb goes on: “That’s my life”. It’s so amazing how many people have gotten this book. It’s all based on my journal entries from when I was trafficked. The only coping skill I had while I was trafficked – and even in my drug addiction – was to journal in my notebooks and hide them so my trafficker couldn’t find them. I managed to go back three years ago, open up those journals, and start a blog. I’d literally write exactly what it said. I didn’t want to leave people depressed and hopeless, so I’d put a present day reflection to let them know, “It’s better. We recover. Here’s where I’m at today compared to where I was then”.
Q: What makes being a helper satisfying/ worth it?
A: I realize now, so clearly, that my past experiences and trauma are healing for somebody else – because I’m in a space of healing. I can’t imagine not sharing the story at this point – not helping people at this point. It’s so very clear to me – what I’ve been through – and how I’m empowered today. How can I not pass that on to somebody else?
Q: How do we support people to see human beings versus stereotypes?
A: I think the best way is what you’re doing. You are showcasing other people’s lives – and the lives you are showcasing are transparent. For me, the best way is to be transparent and vulnerable. That spurs the other person on – usually – to be the same. Then they feel like, “I’ve got stuff, too, and now I feel free to share because she did. She’s not perfect, so I don’t have to be perfect”. Then that openness can happen. But that’s messy… because people are messy. Some people just don’t want to go there and share their mess.
When I get into relationships with people, I can’t control them. I have to accept them where they’re at…I have to love them where they’re at. The women I walk alongside – their lives are messy. They’re complicated. I have one girl I mentor – she keeps going back to her trafficker. That’s not good for her. But what am I going to do? Not walk alongside her? No. I used to make the same decisions years ago when I couldn’t leave my trafficker – for all those messy, complicated, trauma reasons. So, you love people where they’re at.
When I share my story, and I’m transparent and vulnerable, it helps people realize, “She could be someone’s daughter”. I am someone’s daughter. So, that girl on the street corner who is strung out, and you’re judging, she’s someone’s daughter. She’s someone’s niece. She’s actually a real person. She could be someone’s mother.
You have to get to the heart of people. You have to reach them there. You’re only doing that if you’re sharing your vulnerable self with them. We can’t do that if we’re acting like we’re perfect.