Monday, July 15, 2013

Smiles abound as Philly's Project Dawn Court honors ex-prostitutes who succeeded in changing their lives

UPDATE, 7/19/13: See my latest post for the Catholic News Agency story and the photo from the Project Dawn Court graduation.

Original post follows:

I haven't forgotten my promise to write about the beautiful experience I had speaking last Tuesday to the graduates of Philadelphia's Project Dawn treatment court for convicted prostitutes seeking to rebuild their lives. The reason I have withheld writing is that I want to wait until I can quote a Catholic News Agency story that is set to appear.

In the meantime, the Philadelphia Inquirer used the occasion of the graduation to write an excellent account of Project Dawn Court's work. The story featured moving testimonies from new graduate Michelle and alumna Ann-Marie, both of whom mentioned sexual abuse among the factors that led to their entering into prostitution and drug addiction:

It took Michelle Dargan, 52, two decades to find a second chance.

She ran with the wrong crowd in high school, she said. She did speed and drank Thunderbird. Sexual abuse and a son soon followed. Her reliance on drugs and alcohol increased and led her to a life on Kensington Avenue - and quite an arrest record.

Starting in 1989, she was arrested for prostitution 17 times and convicted seven. She hadn't been off probation since, she said, until now.

She's on a new path, thanks to the public defender who referred her last year to Project Dawn Court, an alternative justice and rehabilitation program that aims to address the problems that lead women to and trap them in prostitution.

"The future is so bright for me now," Dargan said Tuesday with her new Project Dawn Court graduation certificate in hand. It took her a year to complete the program, which requires women to participate in substance-abuse and sexual-trauma counseling while staying clean.

She's still "a work in progress," she said, but hopes to use her new confidence and skills to mentor other women who have fallen victim to the same cycle and to write a book about her experiences and the court. ...

"When I looked into the mirror, I used to see nothing," said Ann-Marie Jones, 46, a 2011 graduate of the pilot program. She was sexually abused from the age of 13, then was enmeshed for a decade in drug addiction, prostitution, and the criminal justice system.

She has become an advocate, peer specialist, and mentor at Dawn's Place, a shelter for women trapped in prostitution that partly inspired the court.

"It allowed me to get my life back on track again," Jones said, "and it let me know that I'm a lady."[Read the full article on]

When I came to Philadelphia last month to share the message of My Peace I Give You at the women's jail, public defender Mary DeFusco met with me and told me about how relevant my message was for prostituted women. As a co-founder of the Project Dawn Court, Mary knew from firsthand testimony that an overwhelming number of prostituted women were sexually victimized in childhood.

"There but for the grace of God go I," I said.

I asked Mary what was the deciding factor in the lives of those victims who did turn to prostitution.

In a word, she answered, homelessness. Men who seek to sexually exploit women seek out the most vulnerable at bus stations and other places where women go after leaving or being ejected from unstable households.

The idea that women typically turn to prostitution to support a drug habit is, by and large, a myth, Mary went on. Far more often, the pimp, having begun to prostitute a woman (whose past experience of sexual abuse made her vulnerable to exploitation), proceeds to get the woman addicted to drugs so that her dependence upon him is ensured.

I write in My Peace I Give You about the importance of finding things in your past for which you are grateful. To that, I can add gratitude to God and to my parents for my never having been without a place to lay my head.

The topics of memory and gratitude also featured prominently in the address I gave at the Project Dawn Court graduation. Here is the text of my address, which was cleared in advance with the court's administrators:

It is a joy and an honor for me to be here with you today as the City of Philadelphia honors your great achievement. I have attended several graduation ceremonies in my life, but I don't believe I have ever been present at one where the graduates worked so hard, gave so much, sacrificed so much to see their graduation day.

As the author of a book on spiritual healing, I've been asked to give you a few words to help put your journey in perspective. Because graduation is not really an ending. Every graduation is a new beginning. And today you can now face the future with confidence and hope. Your achievements in this court show that you have within you the God-given power to face whatever challenges may come, with the strength that comes from within.

I can speak confidently about the power that we have from God to overcome personal challenges, because I have experienced that power in my own life. I was born into a Jewish family, my parents split up when I was five, and my sister and I were raised by our mother. It was during that time, when my father was no longer present to protect me, that I began to suffer sexual abuse. My first abuse was committed outside the home – by a janitor at the temple my family attended. When I told my mother what had happened, she said, "You let him do that to you." I was five years old.

Later on, the abuse took place at home. I can remember a few times when I was molested by one of my mother's boyfriends, in my mother's presence.

These experiences of abuse had a profoundly destructive effect on my personal identity. I grew up thinking that I was valuable not for who I was, but only for what I did. Believing that other people, especially men, were going to use me, I put up a false front. This false front was in place by the time I was a teenager. I dressed provocatively, I used sexual language in everyday conversation, and I prided myself on being sexually aggressive. It was all my way of trying to have control. I thought that if men were going to use me anyway, I could at least have some control over how they used me. But no matter how hard I tried to act hard, inside I still felt like a vulnerable, unprotected little girl. I was living a lie. I was lonely, I was depressed, and I didn't know who I was.

Then one day more than ten years ago, when I was 31, I opened up the Bible to St. Paul's letter to the Romans. I had tried to read the Bible before, but it had never really spoken to me. This time, my heart was open. I read Romans chapter 5, verse 1 – "Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through Our Lord Jesus Christ." And I felt in my heart this great desire to know that peace of God, to live it, to build my life upon it.

That desire led me on a journey of healing. I started going to church, and I got baptized. I also got psychological help, and discovered that many of my harmful behaviors were attempts to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which was brought on by my childhood abuse.

As I grew in faith and self-knowledge, I gained the strength to separate myself from the people, places, and situations that were harmful for me. I began to make new friends, people who worked hard to live clean and pure lives, people who supported me as I struggled to replace bad habits and bad behaviors with good habits and good behaviors. And, what's most important, I learned that my value as a human being does not depend on what I do. My value as a human being, as a woman, comes from being made in the image and likeness of God.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of my healing journey has been discovering that God's love has always been present in my life, even during my darkest hours, when I felt most alone. And this brings me to a message that I would like to leave with you, something to contemplate as you walk on through life. It may surprise you.

I used to think that the only way I could heal from the pain of my past was by simply blocking out my memories of the past. But I found that if I tried to block out the past completely, it would come back in painful ways – through flashbacks, or nightmares. What I have learned over time, and what I want to share with you, is that memory is not the enemy.

The key to healing is not to forget your past, but to find moments in your past when someone did something kind for you, when someone protected you, when someone smiled at you, when someone performed an act of love for you without expecting anything in return. If you cannot find a moment when another human being showed you kindness or love, find a moment where you could have lost your life – but you didn't. And when you remember that, know that it was no accident that your life was saved. Your being alive today is no accident. God loves you, and God has sustained you all your life, even in the midst of evil, because He wanted to bring you to this beautiful new day.

So find those good memories, and build your identity upon them. Because your identity is as a beautiful and beloved daughter of God. Thank you and God bless you.

My trip to Philadelphia to address the women of Project Dawn Court is made possible by the generosity of Dawn Patrol readers who have donated to support my making mission trips. If you are one of those donors, I want to thank you again, very much, for your support; know that you remain in my prayers every day.

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If you enjoyed reading my testimony, you may also like my book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, as well as my interviews on EWTN's "Women of Grace" and "The Journey Home."

Looking for my upcoming speaking appearances? Click here.

My Project Dawn Court address has also been posted with my permission in Matt J. Abbott's weekly column.