On Aug. 29, a sunny Monday morning, The Well of Lexington opened its doors, and the women began to arrive.
Over the next few weeks they came, bringing almost nothing except their stories and a fierce determination to reclaim their lives. Different ages, from different backgrounds, these women are connected by a shared trauma — each is a survivor of sex trafficking and prostitution. They have suffered exploitation and violence and have struggled with addiction. They are also connected by an intense desire to heal and change the direction of their lives.
In the United States, the average age that girls are first trafficked is 12 to 13. Often these girls have run away from abusive homes, or were lured away by someone older, charming, who showered them with gifts and promises and the pretense of love.
Once under the control of a trafficker they are trapped, and the women they grow up to be have deep gaps in their educations, no jobs or job skills, and little or no family support. They often end up homeless, caught in a cycle between jail and life on the streets.
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Four years ago, I was one of a handful of people who began to dream of providing a safe space in Lexington where survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution could heal, advance their educations, and ultimately reclaim their lives.
We were inspired by the immensely successful Thistle Farms program in Nashville, which opened one house for five women in 1997, and now has places to house up to 32 women, with hundreds of successful graduates.
We realized that dream in August, when The Well of Lexington opened its first house, offering four women a safe place to live, free of charge, for up to two years. The house, unobtrusive and in a quiet neighborhood, has everything the women need to live simply and comfortably. Most importantly, it is a home to these women, many of whom have never had a safe home.
This simple help — a secure place to live in a community of women making a similar journey — is crucial in breaking the destructive cycles in which these women have been caught. In their first months they focus on healing, both physically and emotionally, while meeting regularly with a social worker to establish goals and develop individual case plans.
As they gain strength and begin to recover, they add part-time employment to their days and work on their GEDs or other educational goals. In their second year at The Well, they will progress toward a transition to independent living.
Through this work, The Well of Lexington is part of a movement of small, housing-first organizations throughout the country seeking to change a culture where women are viewed as commodities to be bought and sold. Sex trafficking happens everywhere; it is the fastest-growing criminal activity in the world, second only to arms dealing. It is low risk, since usually the women, not traffickers or pimps, are arrested. It is lucrative, too — while guns or drugs can only be sold once, a woman can be sold for sex thousands of times. A single trafficker controlling a handful of girls or women can make several hundred thousand dollars a year.
The Well of Lexington is committed to providing a safe place for women who want to escape trafficking and prostitution and build new lives.
Each morning, the women of The Well gather to share their stories, their fears and dreams, and to support each other in the hard work of healing. We are honored to be a part of their individual stories, and of helping to change the world, one woman at a time.
Kim Edwards of Lexington is bestselling author of “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” and “The Lake of Dreams.”