Rescuing women from prostitution, strip joints, and drugs
by: Jonathon Seidl
Warning: Contains sexual content
MEMPHIS, Tenn.—At 14 Megan Kane ran away from home; at 15 she was a mother. At 19 she came to Memphis, Tenn., and began stripping at Platinum Plus, a club known for its live lesbian sex shows and rampant drug culture. There she found the attention and the money intoxicating. She made $300 the first night and wondered, "Why have I been struggling?" Soon she was making $1,300 on a good night, and with the cash came a raging methamphetamine addiction.
At first Kane took meth to stay thin, but eventually she was downing a concoction of prescription stimulants and caffeine to get her out of bed every morning, followed by a bowl of crystal meth. Her appetite disappeared. "I was completely empty," she recalled. "Nothing left inside of me."
Two years ago she faced felony drug possession charges and serious jail time—and that meant she could lose her daughter, Taylor.
Then she saw a news story for a recovery program called A Way Out. A year and a half later, Kane, now 29, has graduated from the program's new 16-week outpatient program (IOP). She received three years of probation after the charges were reduced and she never lost custody of Taylor, now 15. The life has returned to Kane's blue eyes and she's studying nursing at the University of Memphis. The important thing, she said, is where she's going, not where she's been. She wants to become a medical missionary and help refugees: "Sign me up for a hut."
Since 1992 A Way Out has been rescuing women from Memphis' prostitution, stripping, and drug culture. The IOP, added this year, consists of 15 classes (which the women attend four days a week) dealing with problems such as sexual addiction, depression, and boundaries. "These women's spirits are broken and their souls are damaged, and they need time to heal," said director Carol Wiley, an elderly former counselor with a sweet Southern accent. (A Way Out has been a finalist in the Samaritan Awards program two years running—and is now going for the grand prize again with a focus on its outpatient program.)
When Wiley first came, A Way Out was a fledgling, sometimes disorganized service. Now the ministry requires a rigorous entrance interview before giving the women clothing, counseling, financial assistance, job training, and, among other things, a Bible. Clients sign a lifestyle contract and are on probation for the first 60 days. While the program works with the women for up to five years, most graduate after two. According to Wiley, out of 248 women helped, only seven have ever returned to the industry after completing the program.
A recent Tuesday Bible study started with a meal at 6 p.m.: a mound of pulled pork with two bottles of barbecue sauce on either side. The smell of Southern baked beans drifted through the room. At 6:30 volunteer Karen Andrews, a petite woman with a Miss America smile, began the night's study on Genesis.
After the women pulled out their homework, Connie Reed, who has attended for five months, recalled a recent epiphany: "I blamed God for things because all I knew about Him was that He was all powerful. I didn't know we lived in a fallen world, you know what I mean?" The other women nodded.
A Way Out teaches that Jesus is essential to recovery. "I had recovery before, but it didn't last. So there's no doubt about it, you got to have Christ," said Reed, an IOP graduate who joined the program after a near-fatal car accident and her son's suicide. She now lives in one of the program's safe houses, nestled in a small neighborhood just south of I-40. Instead of doing drugs, she grows tomatoes.
Across the table, Hope Stansell, about 5-foot-4 with side-swept bangs and a toothpick frame, told the circle that she wants to understand and "dig into" spiritual warfare. She's also hoping for a job after recently graduating from cosmetology school. Near the end of the study, Wiley reminded them that "God created us for such a time as this," and Andrews assured them that "no one is a mistake."
Mentors are a key part of the program. Pairings last as long as the women are enrolled, and mentors have daily contact with their mentees and access to the women's counselors. Kay Montague has mentored Stansell for over two years and volunteered with A Way Out for 11: "They're pretty real and honest." Mentoring is fun and rewarding, she said, but it can also be emotionally draining. "It's more like being a parent sometimes than it is a friend." Many of the girls operate from the mindset of a teenager, because that's what they were when they entered their destructive lifestyle.
It's a hard lifestyle to leave. Bonnie Brown came to the program just three weeks ago. A volunteer known as "Big Dog" who roves the streets looking for girls to rescue, brought her in. "I never had anyone genuinely tell me I was beautiful. They always wanted something in return," Brown said, barely able to sit still, her lips blistered and cracking. She has an associate's degree but lost custody of her children. Last month she was living behind a Texaco station, turning tricks for crack and blow-drying her hair with the washroom's hand dryer. She relapsed last weekend but came back a day later: "It is hard for me to believe that someone cares for me this much."
But Brown must also show she is committed to the program. "It always bothers you [to turn some away]," Wiley said, "but I can't be their enabler if I'm going to love them like Christ does." She treats relapses like Brown's on an individual basis.
George Kuykendall is a former helicopter pilot whose bear-like frame would barely fit in a cockpit now. A father of three girls, he's also executive director of A Way Out's parent organization, Citizens for Community Values. He and Wiley took WORLD for a tour of Memphis' sex trade, pointing out strip clubs and "ho tracks," blocks of dirty streets lined with cheap restaurants and dilapidated office buildings where prostitutes sell themselves. One club peaks at 3 a.m. when FedEx, the heart of Memphis' economy, lets out its night shift.
"What Carol's doing is the first thing they have seen that's making a difference and getting these women off the street," he said. "They" are the police, who now refer clients to the program and work with Kuykendall to stop the problem where it starts: in the clubs. "Memphis has been the rape capital of the country for several years," he said, "and that's a byproduct of the other things that go on."
For the last nine years Kuykendall has campaigned successfully for various city ordinances designed to curtail the clubs; now laws limit operating hours, ban alcohol sales, and keep strippers at least six feet from patrons. They seem to be working. When Kuykendall came to Memphis there were 13 strip joints; now there are nine. Sometimes he visits the remnants of the city's former No. 1 club, Platinum Plus, the site of his greatest regulatory achievement. Chains bar its doors and the only thing that's naked is the parking lot.
Kuykendall drove on and the club, about 20 miles from Graceland, faded in the mirrors. Wiley peered out the window of the SUV, scanning the sidewalks for prostitutes and hoping to give them a small care package of tissues, lipstick, lotion, and some information about A Way Out. "We find them dancing in the dark," she said, "and we want them living in the light."
Copyright © 2008 WORLD Magazine
August 23, 2008, Vol. 23, No. 17