P.O. Box 16724, Worcester, MA 01601 LIFTworcester@gmail.com (508) 827-1124

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.

#GivingTuesday

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…….
Nikki

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.

Enjoy!

 

 

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…….

From snow to sunshine….

It’s funny how the weather triggers different things from thoughts, to feelings, that turn into storms that just won’t cease. It was often during the winter that I would enter treatment. Simply to have a warm place to rest my head and certainly not because I wanted to change my life. I would wait for days like today when the weather was nice and I would find any reason I could to run. I would blame the program or my family or any other innate reason I could use to go back to the block.

It hurts me to see so many women do the same on days like this. It’s crazy because those people that we know we need to get away from, the one’s we know are going to hurt us are the first place we return to. It’s almost if they give us whatever we are missing, be it pain, suffering or whatever other horror we think we need and deserve but don’t. That sense of belonging on the streets that we could never quite find within the programs. They tell you that you are sisters and you should support each other but you feel like you never quite belong. That you are somehow different from the other women and somehow less than.

So you hold onto all your secrets and your pain. You stuff it. You stuff it far enough down to just try to belong. You try to dress up and smile like them but you feel broken and worthless and like everybody knows. You share because they tell you to. You don’t share the real stuff, the stuff you really need to heal from. You worry you’ll be judged and quite frankly you probably will be. So you pretend to be getting better and we are really good at pretending, it’s been our survival skill for most our lives.

And we wait. We wait for the weather to break. For that first hint on spring. I remember going prematurely and ending up sleeping in a doorway during a snowstorm in March just wishing I had held on a little longer.

I want more for our women then a place to hang on in. More than somewhere to hide from themselves and everybody else in. I want a home for our women where they will truly be supported without judgement. A place where they can find themselves instead of hide from themselves. A place where they can truly be embraced for the beautiful women that they are. A place where they can grow, and somewhere they want to stay even when the snow is gone and the sun is shining.

Snowstorms 

​I remember when news of the snow would bring on the feeling of impending doom. Where would I go? How would I get my fix? Did I even have any gloves? A coat? Where would I find warmth? Shelter? It’s days like today that I am extremely grateful for me life.

And though I am grateful and I truly am, that does not keep me from thinking of and praying for the women still out there. Thoughts and prayers unfortunately aren’t enough on days like today. I’m thinking of the women who will seek Shelter with men they know are not safe. Who will settle and end up hurt for lack of other options. I am thinking of the woman who will do an extra bag to stay warm, the extra bag that just may kill them. I am thinking of the women who get into cars all day and all night for that brief respite from the cold knowing that they are going to have to do things they don’t want to do but also don’t want to freeze to death. So when we talk about choice kindly remember “It’s only a choice if you have choices” Quote by another survivor

We are thinking of you, praying for you, and are going to do everything in our power to open tonight.

I dream of Simple things 

​https://medium.com/world-without-exploitation/i-dream-of-simple-things-3da51415997b#.11j94ihsv

Living in Freedom Together 

It’s really pretty simple. Women LIFTing each other up. Women finding that common bond instead of those obvious differences. Women treating others who need that extra compassion, kindness, and care for where they are in their lives. Women supporting each other instead of judging each other. That is LIFT and due to women in my life who loved me unconditionally despite me, I am here to do the same for others.

It’s so easy to sit in judgement of others. It’s really much easier than trying to understand each other isn’t it. It’s so much easier to class people as drug addicts and hookers, and cast them to the outskirts of our communities than it is to face the brutal truth that we all, in some way shape or form, have sent them there.

Everytime you drive by these women and look the other way you are reinforcing their belief that nobody sees them. When you are looking at them in judgement I want you to know they are judging themselves twice as harshly. When you mock them and call them names, the same names that they, and everyone else who has abused them in their lives have called them. I hope you know those hurtful words echo in their hearts and minds over and over. For those who pick them up and exploit and victimize them, know you are causing trauma that often times is insurmountable and nearly impossible to heal from. And know when you shame these victims on social media and laugh at the horror they are forced to live through everyday, that they are already overwhelmed by shame and you are making it even more difficult to exit and recover.

I know because I am those women and I have felt those things. I often think of those times when I felt invisible, ashamed, afraid, and hopeless. I often wondered why I couldn’t be like you. Why couldn’t I have a car to get into after work. A home to drive home to and a family to complete me. Today I have those things and so much more. I have an understanding and empathy for those still suffering in the nearly inescapable cycle of prostitution. I have a drive and dedication to support and empower these women out of their personal hell. I am going to speak up and change the systems that keep these victims opressed and vulnerable. I am going to continue to have the conversations that noone wants to have, to speak the truth that noone wants to hear. I will continue to use my once silenced voice to advocate for the population that everyone wants to condemn with chants of “Oh they could stop if they wanted to” “They choose to be out there.”

I want to tell you first hand that our systems are designed to keep them their. I have yet to engage with one of these women who told me they were happy and these were their life’s aspirations. I work with amazing people in our community and they are starting to help change the broken systems that keep these women trapped. Unfortunately it’s going to take more than the few of us. It’s going to take all of us. We all need to look at what we can do better. Ask ourselves are we setting these women up to fail? Are we even giving them a fighting chance? And honestly I think if most of you answer that question it will be met with a resounding no.

So we are asking you as a community to do better. As service providers, as agencies, and as human beings. If you are unsure ask. These women don’t need another thing they feel like they failed at because they will own that failure too, though it is you that should.

Let’s help these women see that people care, we want to know how to better help them, that we are listening to them. Let’s help LIFT our women up and treat them with the kindness compassion and dignity they deserve. We should all be Living in Freedom Together and I dream of the day where my sisters will be too. Until then I ask that we all do our part.