One girl couldn't look at herself in the mirror, so Surrea Oglesby made sure all reflective surfaces in the Safe House were covered up. Another girl clawed at her sheets in the middle of the night, fighting off some unseen evil, so Oglesby grabbed on and held her until she fell back into fitful sleep. Another girl was found naked and barking like a dog in the street, so Oglesby took her in.
And then there was 16-year-old Katelyn. She called for help, saying she tried to run from her pimp but couldn't run fast enough and he broke her legs and her teeth and her collarbone. She cried into the phone and said she was sorry and hungry, and that she'd never been hugged. So Oglesby promised to hug her, to feed her, to save her.
"Hold on," she told Katelyn. "I'm coming."
The six other girls in Oglesby's home in Georgia for teenage prostitutes got ready for the new arrival. They put together a gift basket for Katelyn: good hair products, since she probably hadn't washed her hair with anything but hand soap in a long while; clean clothes; a bottle of vitamins; a nail kit; soup; teddy bears and blankets.
"I tried to run, but I wasn't fast enough," Katelyn said, calling from a hospital bed in Montgomery.
"Hey, but you know what?" Oglesby reassured her. "You are alive. You are a strong girl."
Oglesby tried again: "Are you still there, honey?"
A whisper: "Yeah, I'm here."
"You are a strong girl."
Oglesby promised she was coming for Katelyn and would be in her hospital room the next morning.
"I didn't run fast enough," Katelyn said again, apologetic tears in her voice.
"But you made it," Oglesby said. "You made it, you're safe and you're protected. You go, girl. You did a great job."
"I didn't run fast enough."
"No, sweetheart. It's time to stop running. It's time to rest."
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, the Bible says. Oglesby believes in this, even though she has not always been the recipient of such kindness.
At the age of 5 she was on the pageant circuit. A manager molested her, she says, then loaned her out to his friends. This tested the faith she'd been taught in her conservative Baptist home – how could God allow this to happen? – and as she grew older, she tried on other spiritualities: Hindu, Wicca, Islam. Eventually she found her way back to a kind of Christianity she believes Jesus himself would favor. No aggressive preaching and converting. Just getting down on the ground with the sufferers and trying to make things better.
She found a kindred spirit in Daniel Homrich, whom she met through a mutual friend. They realized they shared a common idea of faith, and were part of a community of twentysomething hipsters who had rebelled against the stereotypical definition of "Christian." They acknowledge that the word has taken on – and, often, earned – certain connotations: closed-minded, anti-gay, judgmental, even hypocritical. But Oglesby and Homrich say they're none of those things. They don't leaflet or tsk-tsk at "sinners." They just happen to love Jesus.
After sparring over Christian texts and joking about Oglesby's inability to find her way around town, Homrich talked to her about his cause. As the 27-year-old director of Innocence Atlanta, a nonprofit funded by individuals within and outside the faith community, he helps connect the patchwork of disparate services and publicize the issue of child prostitution here and around the country.
His interest in the problem came after he traveled the world as part of a program he called the Passport, where he and a colleague visited impoverished cities and documented what they saw, then helped local organizations publicize their causes.
Though he bore witness to many afflictions in the places he went, there was always one constant: child prostitution. He's not necessarily talking about pedophilia, but rather the growing appetite for sex with younger and younger girls, who are perceived as cleaner and less combative than their older counterparts in the prostitution trade.
This kind of business doesn't take place only in the back-alley brothels of developing countries. At least 250,000 U.S. children are the victims of sexual exploitation each year, according to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. These deals are brokered in the relative open of street corners, the Internet, hotel bars and in thinly veiled newspaper ads.
Advocates such as Oglesby and Homrich are attacking the problem as it continues to worsen. From 2001 to 2005 the number of sex trafficking cases filed by federal prosecutors shot up 871 percent from over the previous five years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In a 2005 report commissioned by Mayor Shirley Franklin, Atlanta is described as "a hub" for the "appalling trade" of child sexual exploitation. The report cited the city's thriving adult-entertainment industry and reputation as a magnet for abandoned and vulnerable children. Really, though, the problem is far more bleak than any report will show; so much of the activity goes unreported because the victims are scared for their lives.
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