Sex Workers Get a Second Chance at Street's Hope
Think stock photo/Westword photo illustration
When Elle Ballard* moved into a transitional-housing facility for women leaving the sex industry and survivors of sex trafficking, nobody, herself included, thought that she would last there. During her first three days at Street’s Hope in Denver, Ballard suffered from severe panic attacks, spending the majority of her time curled up on her bed and alternately shaking and vomiting into a trash can.
Although Ballard had been clean and sober for five months — far beyond Street’s Hope’s admission requirement of thirty days — some of the other women who lived in the house thought that she was still on drugs or detoxing. The way that Ballard, a 31-year-old petite, brown-haired white woman, couldn’t stop sweating and refused to talk to anyone brought back memories for some of the other recovering addicts in the house.
In reality, Ballard was dealing with intense social anxiety that made her feel trapped in group gatherings and public places. “My psyche was broken,” recalls Ballard — the result of years of trauma experienced during on-and-off homelessness, incarceration, heavy drug use, multiple occurrences of rape, and being subject to a kidnapping in Colorado Springs in 2012.
But despite her fragile state, Ballard did not quit Street’s Hope. Instead, one year after moving into the program’s residence in July 2015, she has just become its latest graduate. Her story of transformation not only highlights the program that she says saved her life, but offers a personal look at sex trafficking and commercial sex work.
Located in south Denver, Street’s Hope is one of the nation’s longest-running transitional-housing facilities that specifically assists adult women recovering from sex trafficking or leaving commercial sex work. The organization, founded in 2004, provides a full-time residential facility that houses ten women at a time and offers services (both in-house and to some outpatient clients) to address a variety of needs, including addiction recovery, mental-health issues, homelessness and lack of education and job history.
While the organization receives client referrals from law enforcement agencies like the FBI, it was actually Ballard’s sister who found out about the program and encouraged her to apply during the summer of 2015.
Ballard’s parents had recently rescued her from Plano, Texas, where she’d called them from a john’s house in a distressed state. The Ballards had only heard from their daughter intermittently over the preceding years, and they jumped at the chance to reclaim her, driving from their home in Wyoming to Texas to do so. Once they had her back, however, it became apparent that she would need professional help to overcome years of horrifying sexual trauma and rampant drug use.
There are about forty live-in programs like Street’s Hope in the United States for victims of sex trafficking and sex workers wanting to get out of their line of work. Although a conservative total of those two populations numbers in the hundreds of thousands, there are fewer than 1,000 beds available among such programs.
In 2007, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called the number of programs available “inadequate,” and a 2013 study conducted in Illinois and funded partly by the Department of Justice found that 28 states had no transitional-housing programs available to trafficking survivors or those leaving the commercial sex industry.
How to define — or whether to even use — the word “prostitution,” and when, exactly, sex work is considered coercive enough to be sex trafficking depends on which organization or bureaucracy you ask.
According to the U.S. government’s definition, as outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, a person is a sex-trafficking victim when “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”
Alternately, a situation in which men and women above the age of eighteen choose to engage in transactional sex and don’t consider themselves coerced is known as either sex work or prostitution.
Adults leaving either set of circumstances often need or seek full-time supervision and personalized help with things like trauma therapy and addiction recovery in order to transition into more traditional employment or social routines. But because sex work is illegal in all states except for certain jurisdictions in Nevada (in Colorado, it’s considered a Class 3 misdemeanor), little government funding is earmarked for adult residential recovery programs.
Meanwhile, there is a growing global movement to recognize sex workers’ rights and decriminalize the commercial sex industry. The issue heated up in August 2015, when Amnesty International formally came out in support of decriminalization of sex work — but decriminalization is an extremely divisive subject.
Activists, bureaucracies and organizations have aligned themselves with different camps, which has caused internal rifts in some cases, including among feminist groups. Some back prominent leaders such as Gloria Steinem, who is against decriminalization; others support sex-positive activists like Margo St. James, who is for it.
Even controversial are the kinds of programs available to former sex workers and sex-trafficking victims. Like many similar programs, Street’s Hope is faith-based and doesn’t view prostitution and sex trafficking as completely distinct from one another but rather as “two sides of the same coin.” The organization receives much of its funding from Christian donors.
But as one of the nation’s more experienced transitional-housing programs, it has provided a wealth of information around recovery strategies, as well as undergone its own learning process about how to best serve its adult female clients, all of whom enter the program expressing a desire to leave sex work, no matter how they got into it.
In Ballard’s case, she wasn’t so sure about Street’s Hope when her family left her in the organization’s hands, especially during her initial panic-stricken days there. Now, she says, she can’t imagine how her life would have turned out had she not been part of the program.
While the exact location of Street’s Hope is kept confidential for the safety of the program’s clients, the organization does share some details about the accommodations it provides, and agreed to give Westword a tour.
The white, two-story house comes across as thoughtfully decorated and organized. The first floor consists of administrative offices, designated therapy spaces, storage rooms and living quarters for two overnight staff members.
The entire upstairs floor of the house is the clients’ domain, and it is there that Street’s Hope’s ten client residents must learn to live together — not always an easy task for those whose time in sex work gave them strong personalities and a certain sense of independence.
“Coming from the streets, you learn to fight and stand up for yourself, because you’re by yourself out there,” explains former resident and program graduate Gina Archuleta. “I didn’t always get along with the other girls, but I had to learn who I was and that I wasn’t always right.”
Having lived out of her car and in other squalid environments when she was prostituting along East Colfax Avenue, Archuleta came to the program and decided she would become a stickler for cleanliness, to the point that some of the women complained that she was being “too OCD.”
Instead of harboring animosity toward the residents, Archuleta says, she took their complaints and used them to improve herself.
“I mean, you think jail teaches you patience? No! Street’s Hope teaches you patience!” she says with a laugh.
Along with learning to live in close quarters with other women, residents have to navigate Street’s Hope’s myriad requirements.
Allison Myers, program manager at Street’s Hope, says that the women’s days are structured with activities to mimic holding a normal nine-to-five job; becoming accustomed to a routine helps transition the women into traditional employment once they leave the program.
These activities and requirements are based on the individual needs of the client, but they include things like therapy sessions, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, urinalysis testing for drugs, and “life skills” classes that teach the women useful day-to-day knowledge such as how to manage a bank account. While the facility is not locked on the inside and women can leave the program at any time (quite a few have, some after only a day), there are other strict requirements in place regarding visitations, Internet use and curfews. For the first ninety days, for example, the women are only allowed to communicate with people outside of the facility by telephone. They also are not allowed to date for the entire duration of their stay.
More enjoyable activities are thrown into the mix, too, like group dinners and outings with volunteers — and for all the mood swings that characterize daily life at Street’s Hope, there are plenty of bonding moments. At night the women watch television, play games and cook for each other, occasionally sharing some of the knowledge they’ve picked up on the street or in lockup, like how to fix a “jailhouse burrito” — made up of ramen noodles, Doritos, chopped beef jerky and ketchup — and spontaneous karaoke parties have been known to break out, usually featuring hits from Mariah Carey and Drake.
Myers, the program director, explains that the population at Street’s Hope is quite diverse in terms of the women’s backgrounds, education and experiences. More than half are local or have some ties to Colorado, while others come from as far away as Maine and Florida.
Since Myers began working for the program in 2014, she’s developed a reputation as a stern but compassionate ally for the clients. But there are a lot of therapeutic considerations she has to make for herself and her staff.
“The clients watch us just as closely as we watch them,” Myers explains. “You have to be very careful to maintain deliberate boundaries, not just for professional or ethical reasons, but for personal safety and to make sure that you remain effective.... Secondary trauma is very real. When clients disclose that they’ve been scalped or beaten or sodomized or gang-raped — that’s going to stay with a person.”
Yet it is exactly these types of disclosures that ultimately help the women come to terms with their past and transition from the life they had while being trafficked or engaging in transactional sex work to the one they envision for themselves when they leave the program.
“What makes Street’s Hope stand out from other programs is that they work on every single situation that could cause you to relapse,” explains Archuleta. “They dug inside my core, but they stripped me down without hurting me while they did it.”
For Archuleta, this meant revisiting memories that she’d been repressing of being molested as a child. As a mother, she also lost one of her daughters to an ecstasy overdose. “And while I’m still traumatized by that, at least I’m able to talk about it now instead of going and numbing myself,” she says.
One of the rooms at Street's Hope used by client residents
In Ballard’s case, it took some time before she really opened up about her past, but there were a number of pivotal moments when she made progress in strides.
The first of these happened on her third night in the home, when she finally ventured out of her room, into the upper floor’s common area. While most of the other women had gone off with staff members to attend a conference, Ballard encountered a fellow resident who convinced her to eat some food and then smoke cigarettes and chat with her on the front porch.
This was the first glance for anyone in the house at Ballard’s quirky and bookish personality. A voracious reader of sci-fi, mystery and crime novels, as well as a self-proclaimed nerd when it comes to anime and superhero films (she’s also obsessed with the Minions), it became readily apparent that Ballard is sharp, funny and well-read. Archuleta developed a friendship with Ballard and would make trips to the local library to pick up books for her floor-mate; it seemed that Ballard could never get enough reading material. Later, Archuleta helped Ballard make progress with her social anxiety by suggesting that she wear sunglasses to hide her fear.
“Put ’em on,” Archuleta coaxed her one afternoon. “And when you put ’em on, you’re invisible. Remember that movie Big Daddy? It’ll be like that.”
Ballard managed a smile. “Yeah, okay.”
After that, the sunglasses became Ballard’s ticket to the outside world. Gradually, the residents were able to take her on authorized trips to places like the supermarket by sticking close to her and holding her hand — like Ballard’s own Secret Service squad.
But it was a trip she decided to take alone that truly launched her recovery.
About three months into Ballard’s residency, she was scheduled to participate in a study being conducted at the University of Denver regarding unwanted sexual experiences. The problem was that there weren’t any staff members or volunteers available to drive her to and from the appointment.
Suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, Ballard announced that she was going to make the trip to the campus all by herself, on public transportation. This would mark the first time she had gone anywhere by herself in the eight months since her parents had gone to get her in Texas.
“This just came out of nowhere,” Archuleta remembers. “The whole house was shocked that she decided to do that on her own.”
On the night before the big bus adventure, Ballard and the other residents pored meticulously over maps, and some women wrote out a detailed set of instructions for Ballard listing the steps she’d take to board the proper buses, including how to pay for her rides and where she needed to get on and off during her trip.
When it came time for Ballard, or “L. Bean” or “Liberty Bell,” as some residents called her (based on her initials), to leave Street’s Hope the next day, Archuleta remembers, she wore a huge backpack.
“We saw that and were worried she wouldn’t come back,” Archuleta says.
It turns out that they needn’t have been concerned. With her sunglasses on and a music player blaring heavy metal from the radio, Ballard was just focused on her mission. To her surprise, she found the experience rather enjoyable — certainly a far cry from months earlier, when she couldn’t even bring herself to leave her room.
“That was the kicking-off point,” Ballard says. “I decided that maybe the world at large wasn’t such an evil place.”
Her new confidence also allowed Ballard to share more about her past, which, as a graduate, she is now courageously doing. “I want to show that trafficking can happen to anyone,” Ballard says.
“I didn’t have a traumatic childhood or anything like that,” Ballard says. “I had a pretty normal childhood.”
Still, a significant number of trafficking survivors recall instances of being molested as minors. Some organizations, including Street’s Hope, cite twelve to fourteen as being the average age for a female entering prostitution, but this statistic has recently come under scrutiny by a few organizations such as the Polaris Project. One of its 2015 studies showed that 44 percent of women identifying as sex trafficking survivors estimated that they engaged in commercial sex before the age of seventeen. The disparity is important, because it highlights the need for ongoing research and suggests that more women, like Ballard, can be coerced into transactional sex at a later age than is commonly assumed.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Texas, Ballard only started to get into trouble when she entered adolescence. In a rebellious phase, she became friends with some unsavory characters, including members of the Aryan Brotherhood, and by the time she was sixteen, she was using methamphetamine regularly. Soon after that, she became a heavy drinker, sometimes consuming as many as ten to fourteen beers per day.
Not everyone noticed. As Ballard puts it, “I was really good at it…. By my mid-twenties, I was hiding bottles of vodka in my car, and I would be trashed at work, but I could still function…. I could still be pretty normal, even though it was a steady downward progression.”
Mostly, Ballard worked jobs in the service industry, including stints for chain restaurants like Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday and Applebee’s. But years of addiction, failed attempts at rehab and relative instability caught up with her when, during a period of unemployment and prolific amphetamine use, she went to visit a friend in Colorado Springs in November 2012.
“This was a very convoluted thing, especially because of all the drug use and having been up for a very long time,” Ballard warns. But here is what she remembers of the trip:
After arriving in the Springs, Ballard rented a maroon Dodge Charger to get around town, but she didn’t have the additional $50 required for insurance. Mandy, a local drug dealer whom she’d met, offered to loan her the cash in exchange for Ballard acting as Mandy’s private taxi service for the next few days.
One morning, as Ballard was on her way to pick up Mandy, she ran out of gas and became stuck on the side of a road. She made some calls, and Mandy showed up, along with a blond-haired, blue-eyed drug dealer named Kid. The two dealers got into some kind of argument before a cash transaction occurred and Mandy took off in another car.
Kid remained behind. After filling Ballard’s tank with gasoline that he’d brought with him, he got into the front seat of the rented Charger, locked the doors, and pointed a 9mm semi-automatic pistol in Ballard’s face.
“Listen,” he said. “This is what’s going on.”
Kid had paid off whatever money Mandy believed Ballard owed her, a figure that had somehow ballooned into thousands of dollars. Now, Kid said, Ballard would have to work it off.
Ballard couldn’t believe what was happening. She had an impulse to run, but then Kid started making threats against her family.
“I can pick up that pretty sister of yours,” he said at one point.
Kid also talked about some of the other girls he’d owned, and how when they misbehaved, he’d rape them, shave their heads, lock them in a refrigerator....
Ballard was petrified, and over the coming days, she herself was raped multiple times by Kid, locked in a bathroom, and taken to a hotel room where a number of men were waiting for her. She still won’t talk about what happened there.
The one constant, she says, is that she was kept high throughout the experience, which was actually a comfort at the time. But drugs, and the fear of Kid’s threats, kept her from running for a couple of days.
Then she had no choice: During a drug transaction with a dealer that she says was associated with the Mexican Sureños gang, there was an altercation between some of the men that resulted in her being traded by her “owner,” Kid, to the Sureños.
“They were going to drive me over to the Sureños gang and sell me,” Ballard recalls. “I was either going to be a sex slave or was going to be gangbanged to death.”
While en route to carry out the trade, however, Kid pulled over at a 7-Eleven to get gas. Even though the doors of the car were locked, Ballard realized that she could manually unlock the passenger-side door of the vehicle.
I need to get out of here or I’m going to die, she thought.
So she threw open the door and bolted inside the 7-Eleven.
“That guy is not my friend! He’s trying to hurt me!” she yelled at the clerk.
From the safety of the store, Ballard used a phone to call the friend whom she had originally intended to visit in Colorado Springs. As soon as he arrived, Ballard jumped in his car and they sped off. The friend was adamant that Ballard not report the kidnapping to the cops. “You don’t snitch,” he instructed her, afraid that he and Ballard could be busted for all of their drug use. So Ballard never filed a police report about the incident.
It did, however, leave her extremely scarred. After escaping from Colorado Springs, Ballard ended up in Dallas, where her drug use continued unabated. No longer able to hold a traditional job, she turned to sex work as her financial lifeline, using free wi-fi at places like McDonald’s and Starbucks to post escort advertisements online.
“BDSM was pretty much my wheelhouse,” she says.
For nearly two years, she turned tricks, sometimes staying at johns’ houses, other times experiencing homelessness. “One thing I learned being homeless and being a drug addict is that most people don’t give a shit about you,” she says.
As an example, she refers to a time when, after being raped on the streets, she went to a hospital, only to be told that they didn’t have rape kits. Instead, when law enforcement personnel found a syringe in her bra, Ballard was jailed for a short period of time.
Beyond the instability of her living situation, Ballard also started losing her grip on reality. Constantly on drugs, she developed delusions and paranoia, at times believing she was dead, at others believing that she was being chased by international spies. Finally, she began plotting to murder people who had hurt her, including a number of women who had pimped her out behind her back.
“The scary thing is that I was pretty sure I could get away with it,” she says of the elaborate murder plots she formed in her mind.
It was scary enough that Ballard, even in her state, knew that she had to be rescued before she could do anything. After stringing together a few days of relative sobriety in Plano, she called her family.
The upstairs at Street's Hope includes a common area and kitchen for client residents
Stories like Ballard’s deserve attention because they offer insight into how adult trafficking can occur; it’s also rare to find survivors who are so open about their experiences. But it’s also important to not over-generalize the particulars of her story.
Susan Dewey, an associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wyoming, is careful to point out that there are a wide variety of situations that can lead a person to be trafficked or to engage in sex work of their own volition.
“[Trafficking] is certainly not always the kidnapped little white girl that you see in the media who’s trapped in a basement,” she stresses.
During the past decade-plus, Dewey has researched and written multiple books and academic articles about sex work and feminized labor. She is also Street’s Hope’s admissions coordinator, reviewing applications and conducting interviews with women who’d like to enter the program. While she’s careful to keep her research separate from the application process, being involved at Street’s Hope has introduced her to many women who used to work in Denver’s East Colfax corridor — a well-known area for prostitution because of the avenue’s numerous motels. Some even agreed to introduce Dewey to current participants, and she is now a recognized figure among sex workers in Denver.
As a result of those relationships and time spent working with the population at Street’s Hope, Dewey has a good idea of the demographics and characteristics of those involved in Denver’s sex industry — the exact size of which is difficult to pinpoint, though the FBI reported 116 arrests for prostitution in Denver County between 2006 and 2012.
“By and large, most clients that we see at Street’s Hope have felony convictions,” Dewey says. “They are women of color — particularly black women — which is significant in a very white city.... Eighty percent of our clients identify as non-white, so that’s a pretty big disjuncture.”
That disjuncture isn’t unique to Denver. According to data from the FBI about nationwide prostitution arrests, 41.4 percent of arrestees are African-American, while 2015 Census data shows that African-Americans make up 13.2 percent of the U.S. population.
Dewey also says that unlike higher-end escorts, women of color and people who are transgender make up the majority of those involved in the most dangerous forms of transactional sex, such as street work, and are therefore the most likely to be killed by a john or arrested.
“So the sex industry, like all industries in this country, is segregated,” she observes.
In addition, aggregate data that she’s pulled from 126 entrance forms submitted by Street’s Hope participants has led to other discoveries, such as the average age of women in the program being 33. It’s also the case that nearly a tenth of the women in the program reported either having been trafficked or having engaged in prostitution to fulfill basic needs, including finding shelter and food.
Sergeant Daniel Steele, a member of the Denver Police Department and a supervisor in the FBI’s Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force, says that when it comes to trafficking, “it’s good to bring attention to adults.”
“Far too often, the subject [of trafficking] revolves around minors, I think, for obvious reasons — because we look at our children and see them as a very vulnerable population,” he explains. “But I can tell you from having kids of my own that just because somebody turns eighteen doesn’t mean that they’re not still vulnerable.”
But that’s also not to say that trafficking of minors isn’t a serious problem. In conjunction with other agencies, the Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force has been responsible for recovering a shocking number of minors being sexually trafficked in Denver and Colorado as a whole. During last year’s FBI-coordinated “Operation Cross Country” sting, twenty juvenile victims were recovered in Denver, more than in any other city. In just the first six months of 2016, 57 minors have been recovered across Colorado, and last year the number was 89. As a transit hub surrounded by two interstate highways and home to an international airport, Denver attracts this type of activity.
Because federal law automatically considers anyone under the age of eighteen who is engaged in transactional sexual activity to be a victim of trafficking and therefore not criminally liable, youth trafficking often receives more recovery-effort funding and media attention than the much blurrier and ethically controversial world of adult sex work.
For her part, though, Dewey is careful not to overly stress adult trafficking. “A lot of stuff is overblown and speaks to the general paranoia and stigma surrounding sexuality in our society,” she says, adding that there is a significant gray area when it comes to adult sex work, with an entire spectrum stretching from a coerced trafficking victim to the woman or man who feels empowered by doing sex work for a living.
Dewey makes for an interesting partner with Street’s Hope because she doesn’t necessarily take its faith-based position that sex trafficking is closely equated to sex work.
“I’m also an atheist all day long, and I’ll admit that when I started this work, I was so prejudiced, without even knowing it, [seeing] people who self-identify as religious [as having an agenda],” she says.
But Dewey says that for a Christian organization, Street’s Hope doesn’t push any sort of religious beliefs on its clients, who include non-believers and women from all faiths. And even though Dewey is personally in favor of decriminalizing sex work, she thinks it’s good to have programs like Street’s Hope to assist those who choose to leave the industry, especially since there aren’t many other options offering the same intensive, round-the-clock recovery treatment that is required for women with extensive addiction problems and trauma.
“It’s among the oldest transitional-housing facilities in the U.S, and it’s doing a pretty good job — otherwise, I wouldn’t give my time and my energy to it,” she says. “There are only 34 of these houses that I’ve counted nationally, all faith-based. And when it comes down to it, feminists are doing nothing to provide safe houses to the women because they’re busy fighting about what to call this thing — transactional sex, prostitution, sex work, etc.”
Still, some organizations in Denver are somewhat wary of faith-based programs given the current discussions around decriminalization. Rachel Carlisle of the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Denver — an organization made up entirely of current and former sex workers that supports decriminalization (but is anti-trafficking) — says that if a worker wishes to leave the industry, “I’m not sure that we would refer them to a faith-based organization, because my concern is that the ultimate goal of that organization is to get them out of the industry at all costs.”
Instead, she says, workers should be able to ease their way out of sex work: “If you need to take a session or do some form of sex work in order to get your needs met for the time being until getting a job placement somewhere else, that’s totally fine. We don’t want to say that the most important thing is to get people out of the industry as soon as possible, but to get their survival needs met.”
Carlisle highlights a familiar argument in favor of decriminalization: that removing sex work from the category of a crime can better protect participants from physical attacks, health risks, abuse and trafficking, because they would be able to access services and report those things to authorities without fear of being criminally prosecuted themselves.
That rationale is similar to what Amnesty International declared in its 2015 position paper; it was also the topic of a January 2016 TED Talk by a British sex worker named Toni Mac that has been viewed over a million and a half times online.
Given the current decriminalization debate going on internationally, it has yet to be seen how the conversation will move forward in Colorado. Already, there is some evidence that attitudes toward sex work are changing; last year, the Denver Police Department joined a nationwide initiative as one of eleven cities that pledged to focus more resources on arresting johns rather than prostitutes. According to DPD lieutenant James Henning, one way the department is doing this is through regular “buyer stings” on websites.
There is also a relatively new Boulder-based organization called iEmpathize that aims to get in front of issues around sex exploitation by offering an innovative prevention approach: teaching teenagers how to avoid exploitation. As Candace Joice, the program’s education manager, explains, “Our program has two primary objectives: to empower kids with strategies to navigate their own personal vulnerabilities, and to nurture the development of empathy in youth so they will care about keeping others safe as well…. It’s not so much about identifying the signs of a trafficker as it is identifying the signs of a negative pull — someone trying to take advantage of your vulnerabilities in order to manipulate and use that for their own advantage.” Since last year, the program has been implemented in Colorado through schools, clubs, juvenile correctional facilities and other youth services, and the organization plans to continue expanding nationally.
For its part, Street’s Hope maintains that it’s too busy helping its clients to get mired in the greater, yet inescapable, discussions around decriminalization.
As Allison Myers puts it, “We support anyone out there making sure these women are getting help. But are we going to actively go out there and give out clean needles and condoms? No.”
With Street’s Hope’s clients, she says, “We aren’t just giving them a place to lay their head and putting clothes on their backs. We’re helping them dig through everything they’ve experienced and helping them rediscover — like a fossil — the beauty and the art of who they are at their core, underneath all of these experiences and the labels that society and others have given them.”
One of the messages of encouragement for clients collected at Street's Hope's annual fundraiser
In early August, as Ballard’s last week at Street’s Hope came to an end, most agreed that she barely resembled the scared, broken person she was when she entered the program. As is customary for all graduates, a ceremony was held at a church on August 1 in her honor, the guest list filled with family, staff, volunteers, residents and other past graduates. It was an emotional evening for all, especially with news coming in just days before that one of the program’s former full-time residents had passed away mysteriously after going to a hospital for a medical procedure on her knee. In December 2015, the community had also lost a resident to a drunk driver in a vehicular hit-and-run.
But the event was also full of encouragement for each of the program’s current residents, all of whom received evaluative speeches and praise in front of the gathering. By far the most anticipated speech, though, was from Ballard herself, the only graduate in August.
Getting up behind the podium, no sunglasses needed, Ballard took a deep breath before she began.
“I look at my life as a series of accidents — really bad ones, really good ones. You just sort of stumble along and roll with it. And this program is something that I didn’t think I’d complete. I was really damaged. And these women watched me fall apart and cry and hide and shake and just want to crawl under a rock because I didn’t know how to live anymore. So they let me take my time, and they loved me, and they fought with me, and what this program did…this program literally gave me back a life.”
Five and a half weeks later, that life is starting, slowly, to flourish. In a change of circumstances, Ballard has had to be the supportive force in her family as her mother deals with serious and unexpected medical complications that arose in late August. But she is thankful for the chance to give back after her parents saved her.
“My biggest thing now is trying to figure out where I fit in society,” she says over the phone. “I think I’m going to go back to school, maybe study criminal psychology.”
No matter what she does, she says she’ll continue to be involved with Street’s Hope as part of its alumni network. There will always be other women she can help.
*Ballard's first name has been changed to protect her identity.
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