HAMMOND | At age 4, a girl growing up on the west side of Chicago began to be molested by men her grandmother brought home.
She had two children by the age of 15. At the same age, she became a prostitute in the streets of Chicago.
“It was Good Friday, just before Easter, and she didn’t have money to feed her babies, and she felt that the only way to get money was to prostitute herself. Her grandma told her ‘whatever you do best,’ so she went into the streets that night and she made more money than she ever saw in her life,” said Brenda Myers Powell, a co-founder of a nonprofit that assists human trafficking victims.
Twenty-five years later the girl, now a woman, had been shot five times and stabbed 13 times.
Her last customer dragged her six blocks by car, landing her in the hospital. A doctor took notice of her medical history and told the woman she was afraid that one day she wouldn’t be able to save her.
The conversation compelled the woman to get help and enter a shelter for a year and a half.
That woman, Powell told the 300-member audience at the Hammond Civic Center, was her.
During a program sponsored by the Hammond Citywide Crime Watch, Powell spoke last week about her life as a prostitute and her recovery. She now runs The Dreamcatcher Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in prevention and assistance for girls and young women who have been sexually exploited.
The foundation partners with The Salvation Army’s PROMISE program, which combats sex trafficking of children in Chicago. The PROMISE program also runs Anne’s House, a residential program for victims.
“When I go out and talk to these girls and reach out, I already know who they are. They are me,” Powell said. “When you think of prostitution, a lot of you think of a woman who has a choice, who wants to do it.
"Everyone saw ‘Pretty Woman.’ That’s cool, huh. It never happens because by the time you see her on the street, visible, she’s been doing it for some time. There has to be some pain behind that. No great woman wants to sell her body.”
A representative from the PROMISE program, who remained anonymous because of the sensitivity of his work, said education is key to help preventing and combating the activity.
He recommended attending trainings on ways to identify kids who are victims of sex trafficking and to learn techniques on how to approach victims.
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who attended along with members of his staff, said his department has been looking at the problem for several months.
“It hit home about the training, and I’m going to work vigorously to get this type of training on the curriculum for the law enforcement academy, especially to get our young officers ... to be able to deal with these problems in society,” Buncich said.
Several Purdue University Calumet nursing students attended Powell’s talk. Many said they didn't know human trafficking existed in America before their nursing classes.
“It’s like a real-life example to what we actually have learned in class,” nursing student Courtney Sult said.