Features

Giving their names back

"Giving their names back" Continued...

Issue: "Snakepit," Feb. 11, 2006

Mrs. Wiley and Mr. Kuykendall don't just help these women with the big things, like sobriety and something to cover up their nakedness. They help with the small things, too. Things like school lunches.

The conversation bubbles in a meeting room at Christ United Methodist Church: "What did Santa Claus bring you?" "Who made this lasagna?" "Is that new?"

It's just a normal Wednesday night meal at any old church. Kids run about, women talk over this and that. They hug and laugh and groan over pounds gained at Christmas. You'd never know half of these women used to sell sex to johns and tricks and men in strip clubs.

The other half are women who've never had anything to do with stripping. These are the mentors, the Christian women who volunteer to serve as counselors, friends, anything.

Melinda is in her 30s. She's bursting with the energy of some little bird, talking to every corner of the room. Melinda started out as a topless dancer, then a high-priced escort, then a plain old prostitute. She'd done a lot in the decade or so she lived this lifestyle, but she'd never made school lunch for her kids. "A Way Out" gave her the chance. "I was excited about making lunch," she says, "and walking my child down to the school bus."

Gail, in her 40s, is quieter. I ask her about the small things, too. "This is something really small, but making homemade cookies with my mentor." She looks up at her mentor, next to her: "We wore the aprons, I mean, it was really fun."

The mentors help out with rides to church, to the dentist, to see a play. They help with groceries, gas, even school lunches and Christmas cookies.

All these women have tough stories. Pimps, tricks, crack, heroin, rubber hoses, torture, jail, starvation, degradation. They've seen friends killed by pimps, had friends die in their arms because the hourly motel didn't want to attract the attention of an ambulance. When they talk about their old lives and livelihoods, it's always veiled: "the industry," "back then," "out there." Mrs. Wiley and Mr. Kuykendall are the ones who go "out there" and bring some of its residents back.

The women talk about their future. They want to go to school, to study social work, nursing, psychology. Jennnifer says, "I just want a simple life."

Mrs. Wiley and the other mentors have dreams for the program's future: "We need a house," she says, a place for the women and their children to live, a place to meet, to fellowship, to throw birthday parties, to make those school lunches.

Back in the car with Mr. Kuykendall and Mrs. Wiley, we're still looking for prostitutes. Mrs. Wiley likes to give each a little Bible, a candle, some lotion: "real girly stuff." But we don't find any women out on the Ho Track tonight. The midwinter dusk is blue-black and turning darker, and Mr. Kuykendall finally turns on his headlights. We turn around to head home.

"I'm proud there aren't any prostitutes out here," he says, but he and Mrs. Wiley both sound a little disappointed. We stop at a red light, his face even ruddier in the red glow of brake lights in front of us. The bulldog turns to me and says, "After what you've seen, don't you think the church ought to be in this fight?"

Harrison Scott Key
Harrison Scott Key

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