P.O. Box 16724, Worcester, MA 01601 lift@liftworcester.org (774) 243-6025

Human Trafficking Survivor Nikki Bell Interview on WGBY

Nikki Bell is a wife, mother, and human trafficking survivor. Human trafficking is an area of concern not only in Western Massachusetts, but across the country. According to the Department of Homeland Security, traffickers use force or fraud to coerce their victims often into the commercial sex trade. Bell shares her story in the hopes of helping other victims find a way out of the multi-million dollar criminal industry. 

“Speaking out makes me feel that I have value and something to add to the world.”

Nikki Bell, a graduate of The Voices and Faces Project‘s “Stories We Tell” testimonial writing workshop, believes that her story is her power. And she’s using it to create change.

When people talk about trafficking and exploitation, they often focus on its impact on those who are currently “in the life.” But being bought, sold, or exploited can leave wounds that linger long after someone has left the sex trade.

Nikki Bell wants people to understand that. An outspoken activist on behalf of other survivors of exploitation. Nikki – who exited the sex trade years ago – is speaking and writing about her own experience in order to change the conversation we’re having about prostitution and trafficking.

As part of that effort, Nikki joined in “The Stories We Tell,” The Voices and Faces Project’s immersive, two-day testimonial writing workshop created for survivors of gender-based violence and other human rights violations. Being a part of the writing workshop was transformative for Nikki.

“I always appreciate coming together with other survivors of gender-based violence, but this was something different. The workshop created an atmosphere where I could share my writing without fear of stigmatization or shame,” says Nikki.

“I learned that my work didn’t have to be linear to be powerful. That writing about a dream can be a form of testimony. I also benefitted from the feedback our workshop leaders and others in the room shared. “The Stories We Tell” helped me add a level of creativity to my writing that makes it that much more impactful.” That creativity is evident in “I Dream of Simple Things,” a moving piece inspired by Nikki’s memories of being prostituted. Her piece tells the world a story that needs to be heard and serves as a reminder that the wounds we experience can stay with us long after we’ve made our way to a safer place. Put another way: even when survivors exit “the life,” the life sometimes stays with them.

This article originally appeared in “The Stories We Tell“, North America’s first two-day testimonial writing program for survivors of gender-based violence. Original link: http://voicesandfaces.org/workshop/Bell.html

The Aftermath

Some days were easier than others. Then there were the others. The ones she didn’t know how she would survive. The ones where she was afraid of everything and everyone and the fair was so tangible she could taste it. She never could explain what it tasted like but from the terror in her eyes I believed her.

It was strange because she was no longer on the street, for the first time in forever, she had her own key, to her own door, and she didn’t have to do anything to, or for anyone to stay there. She could close the door behind her and lock it, and she should feel safe.
Yet she didn’t. She was afraid to be by herself which you would think she would want after everything, but that was when she was most afraid. She was afraid of what she locked in rather than what or who she locked out. She couldn’t sleep. She had night terrors so real the hair would stand up on her arms and she would cowwer in the corner next to her fridge. She would barricade the door just in case if she managed to fall asleep, which you probably wouldn’t, she would hear whoever it was she was afraid of trying to get in.

She didn’t know who it was she was scared of. There were so many possibilities. So many people had hurt her, or promised to hurt her, bought her and then thrown her away. She was also afraid of herself. She was afraid of the things she would do to cope with the fear. She was afraid of the solution to the fear. You see it was a never-ending cycle of the fear, using something to numb the fear, running out of the stuff to numb the fear, and then having to do things that made her afraid again.

So she held on with all her might, tears streaming down her face, for daylight to come, for when she didn’t have to be alone and she could surround herself with her sisters. It was the only place she felt safe.

Holidays, Hope, and Freedom

Holidays for many, bring on the excitement of spending time with family and celebrating all we have to be thankful for each year. Today they bring that excitement and gratitude for me as well, but for a long, long time that was not the case. 

For many years they brought a lot of pain and sorrow when the holiday season crept in. Folks celebrating the leaves changing and their upcoming gatherings while I watched them all in envy. Why can’t I have that? What is wrong with me? I don’t have anyone to spend the holidays with, nor anywhere to spend them, nor did I feel I had anything to be grateful for. I would walk up and down the track in my flip flops from summer, now long gone. No jacket, weighing 100 pounds soaking wet, pretending that this was the life I wanted. This was who I was meant to be………right?

Reality was that I had to be whoever the buyer wanted me to be,  for however long they paid to access my body, for however long they had paid to sexually assault me. Sometimes holidays would beget me a few extra bucks from my regulars and I would have to thank them profusely. Acknowledging how much they must care about me to give me an extra 50 dollars, knowing fair well what was expected for that extra money. I’m forced to smile while trying hard to hold down the vomit in the back of my throat, as I lie through my broken teeth, telling them how special they are to me, when I truly wanted to claw their eyes out. I felt as if nobody saw me, or if they did, they didn’t care that I was slowly dying inside, all the while praying it would hurry up and happen already. I just wanted to die already. Then I would truly have something to be grateful for, the masquerade that had become my existence would be over.

Today, and everyday I am exceptionally grateful, and not just on Thanksgiving. Each day I wake up in my own bed, safe………free. Free to be myself. Free to smile because I truly am happy, free to be angry if that’s what I am feeling, and free to be me, truly me. I get to say who I want to spend time with, I get to say who can touch me, and who cannot. My worth is no longer attached to a dollar value. I am not for sale today and I am grateful for that each and everyday. 

I am grateful for the opportunity to reunite my body and my heart. For the ability to be present in moments of intimacy. To feel my son’s breath on my face in the morning, to wake up to that look of adoration, to know real love, true, messy, and imperfect. I am grateful to have a husband, a partner, and best friend, who knows my flaws, my fears, and my dreams. One who doesn’t question when I wake up afraid, one who consoles, supports, and walks beside me, allowing me to be beautifully broken yet finally whole.

I am grateful for my family who are not ashamed of what had happened but instead are proud of who I am. Who support me on my journey allowing my truth to be the freedom that I always craved, needed, and now thrive within.

I am grateful for my sisters who know me in a way that I think no one else truly ever will. The sisters that share in my nightmares and my dreams. My sisters who inspire me to be me without abandon. My sisters, whose love allows me to shed my shame and hold my head high. She is I and I am she, and for their friendship and sisterhood my gratitude is endless.

I am grateful for air, for I feel like I can finally breathe. I am grateful for love, which I am able to give and receive today. I am grateful for hope of which I have an abundance of today. I am grateful for life, today and everyday, and so long as I exist I will remain that way.

So holidays can bring joy but can also cause a swell of memories I wish I could forget. I am grateful I can look those painful memories in the face and know that what happened to me does not define me. This Thanksgiving I am grateful for a freedom I wish all my sisters could know and until they can we will continue to fight alongside them.


Living In Freedom Together (LIFT) has become an important place for the Survivors we work with. I am not going to get into my history but I am also a survivor and LIFT began because of the need for support services for women being sexually exploited in our community, I didn’t want my sisters to be alone on those streets anymore. We wanted them to know that they have a community that cares about them, and that I didn’t forget about them, nor leave them behind. It seems so simple, to provide support services in an environment that is safe for them. A place that they can trust we’ll do anything we can to help, and we are there to listen, love, and support them. LIFT has transformed into a complete community effort. Partner agencies provide on site testing, and narcan, we have support staff to help them process the sexual violence they are experiencing, we have college students, community members, and most importantly other survivors who get it and provide hope to those still stuck. For a few hours a week they are allowed to be women, not a product to be bought and sold, but their true self. We have seen lots of laughter, tears, anger, and emotion, they are allowed to feel.

I don’t think most understand that commercial sexual exploitation makes you become someone else. Whoever your purchaser needs you to be for that timeframe you become. Laughing at jokes that aren’t funny, smiling though the bile is rising in the back of your throat. “Yes this is the only place I want to be” you say, but inside it’s the only place you don’t want to be. You want to be better, you want to be with your children, you want to have a home and be with those who really love you, and not with those who pay to sexually assault you.

Exiting is not easy. People have this concept that you just stop it and walk away. That you get a job and put it behind you but it’s not that simple. It takes a lifetime to recover from exploitation of any form. There are roadblocks such as criminal records, there is substance use disorder, and there is trauma that invades every aspect of your being. It is not fun out there. It is not “Pretty Woman” but we can and do recover and there are many survivors working to help support others in the exiting process. LIFT is comprised of Survivors and allies who will assist in that process when they are ready, and are there to simply love our sisters in the meanwhile. Exiting cannot be rushed. It is an individual journey because we are all different and we all have different needs.

One of the greatest needs is housing. Imagine trying to recover without a safe place of your own to heal. LIFT is working to begin housing survivors but we need your help and financial assistance. We are working to provide survivors with that safe place to begin their journey. We need funds for renovations, furniture, and sponsorship to help our sisters begin to heal. This giving Tuesday please help us help our sisters. This is a community effort and we need your help. 

The Facade of “Helpful Arrest”

Victims of CSE are still being arrested, charged, and criminalized for prostitution despite being victims. Criminalizing has long lasting negative effects on an already vulnerable group of people.

Contact with the criminal justice system via means of “helpful arrest” is not beneficial.  Victims most frequently face harmful consequences as a result of arrest and incarceration.

We have to do better. There needs to be other options. The women I work with are not being aided by arrest. Instead we are placing barrier upon barrier to exiting with each arrest, arraignment, and incarceration.  We all deserve to have a access to safe and affordable housing. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to sit beside survivors advocating during appeals to not strip them of their housing voutures. Why is it ok for these survivors to have to ask for forgiveness for their victimization? Do we have sexual assault survivors sitting in hearings telling the public housing authority that they will keep the other residents safe by promising not to be raped again? Let us not forget what prostitution is, PAID RAPE.

Yet we look at victims of commercial sexual exploitation differently. “They aren’t really victims” “They choose this life” Often women remain in the “Life” because square life seems unobtainable. Imagine having multiple charges of prostitution related crimes and sitting across from a potential employer, potentially a white man of power, who represents your past purchasers and exploiters, again asking for forgiveness for your victimization. Imagine how vulnerable they feel and how revictimizing that is. Do you still think helpful arrest is helpful? I don’t and I never will.

Also we factor in that most survivors interactions with police are not viewed as helpful but rather the opposite. Regardless of age at time of arrest none of these victims are treated like victims at time of arrest or throughout interaction with the court system. It is always made very clear to them that they are criminals who are breaking the law (whether explicitly or implicitly).

Most survivors describe overwhelmingly negative experiences with law enforcement which can consist of verbal abuse, intimidation, humiliation, sexual harassment, and/or profiling.  Most survivors talk frequently about slurs and derogatory comments from law enforcement. 

How can we say we know that individuals involved in prostitution are victims yet still treat them like criminals? How can we honestly think this is helpful? We need a victim centered approach that law enforcement engagement, via means of arrest, just can’t and won’t deliver.

We have to do better, we have to think outside the box and find alternatives to connect survivors to services. The reality is when arrested and incarcerated they are no more receiving services in custody than they are on the block. And often times they aren’t living through the weekend upon release. 

I think that is the opposite of helpful…….

LIFT’s Charitable Dinner Fundraiser 2017 (Photos & Videos)

On Sunday June, 4th LIFT held its first ever charitable dinner and silent auction. The money raised from this event helps LIFT continue to provide a drop-in center, allows for the expansion of services for incarcerated survivors, and to continue to be able to provide support for women who are exiting commercial sexual exploitation. Everyone at LIFT is humbled and grateful for all of the support they have received. We are excited to see what the future holds and couldn’t do it without the support and generosity of the community.

Below are all of the photos taken from the even and video from LIFT founder Nikki Bell, Marianne Sarkis, Kate Toomey, Judge Tim Bibaud, and Kim Dawkins discuss the importance of LIFTs mission.




New nonprofit seeks treatment for victims of prostitution, drugs (T&G 4/22/2017)

WORCESTER – 36-year-old Nicole M. Bell looks every inch the professional, hair neatly pulled back, a smart blouse and black skirt over sensible shoes. Ms. Bell indeed has become a leader in the city’s nonprofit realm, founding Living In Freedom Together, or LIFT, a resource and advocacy center for women who have been commercially sexually exploited. A center for women like herself.

Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession, but it’s not one that the overwhelming majority of women enter voluntarily. The average age of entry into prostitution is between 12 and 14, younger than the age of consent to have sex, according to LIFT. Upward of 95 percent of those in prostitution were sexually assaulted as children. And it’s hard to get out of.

“Once you’ve been involved in sexual violence, it’s almost like dissociating,” Ms. Bell said. “You need drugs, so you get in a car. Then you need drugs to forget what you just did.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the women have addictions besides post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Dr. Matilde Castiel, Worcester’s commissioner of Health and Human Services, who has been working with LIFT to advocate for services.

“This is a population that has not been looked at,” she continued. “How do we get them treatment?”

Ms. Bell, a survivor of trafficking who was on the streets for a decade, has been in long-term recovery from prostitution and drugs for more than three years.

Before that, she had many attempts at treatment, and many arrests, since she arrived in Worcester for addiction treatment from her hometown south of Boston. She started living in the PIP shelter, which she described as “not a safe place for women,” and eventually was sleeping in doorways.

Half the women who are prostituted are homeless, according to Ms. Bell, and one in five is exchanging sex for a place to stay.

Ms. Bell would go to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings as part of her treatment, and get exploited further. “I’d share about something about my past and I’d end up getting solicited in the parking lot,” she said.

Until she started going to Everyday Miracles Peer Recovery Support Center, where then-director Athena Haddon encouraged her to participate in the Worcester Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Ms. Bell’s interactions with police largely revolved around getting hauled into jail.

“There was never any services attached to the arrests,” she said. Even with standard recovery treatment, she said, “We’re placing these women in substance-abuse programs and they’re not getting treated for why they’re using.”

While she said her self-worth was gone at that point in her life, being listened to for the first time by police, health professionals and community leaders was empowering.

Continue reading the rest here New nonprofit seeks treatment for victims of prostitution, drugs — Telegram.com, 4/22/2017

Historic Survivor Symposium 

So I just returned from a historic Survivor Symposium at Villa Nova’s CSE Institute. I got to spend some time with my sisters and learned from other survivors what true survivor leaders are, and what they are doing around the country. I sat in on some very interesting workshops such as Survivor Leadership in Human Trafficking taskforces, Housing, Resources and Support for Court Involved Individuals, and More than our Story, true Survivor Leadership.

We have come a long way in our community in terms of intervention efforts, the way victims are treated in our court systems, and in developing resources and support but we have a long way to go. Human trafficking and Commercial sexual exploitation is happening in our community as I type this, on the streets, and in hotels, in strip clubs, and massage parlors. Simply because you choose to look the other way does not mean it isn’t happening. At times it can feel like people in positions of power, from judges, to police, to other influential community members tell you that they hear what you’re saying, they believe the evidence is there but in turn behave like they don’t,  or quite frankly don’t give a hoot. They continue to treat these victims as criminals, inappropriately place them in programs that have proven to fail them again and again, and then blame the victim when they don’t succeed in the programs. At some point we need to take responsibility for making it impossible for them to succeed and quitting on them if they make a mistake. I won’t quit on any of you that I promise. You are worth my time and work, and I believe that you can do it with the right supports, placement, and compassionate care.

It took me so many attempts, years, endless disappointments for my family, multiple incarceration, and umpteen relapses before I could exit and find recovery. The shame that I had to unpack, the countless times I made mistakes, and continue to on this journey. Fortunately I have women in my life that understand it takes a lifetime of healing and therapy to recover from the aftermath of prostitution. Instead of criminalizing the victims we need to shift back to targeting the real perpetrators and offering the victims exit services. Every single arrest and incarceration becomes another barrier to exiting.

We need to really make some policy changes around the treatment of Commercially Sexually exploited persons. We need to provide support, safety, resources, kindness, and compassion for these victims. We do not need to give them handcuffs, arrests, blame, jail sentences, or condemnation. Instead of telling them what they are doing wrong look at what you are doing wrong in regards to their placement. I had a million fingers pointing at me telling me about my many missed opportunities and failures. I often wonder what a helping hand and the appropriate care would have done in my life…….