WellHouse founder shares harrowing story at Southside
No little girl goes to bed at night and happily dreams of a life filled with repeated sexual assaults, drug addiction, imprisonment and abuse of every kind.
It certainly wasn’t the future envisioned by Newnan, Georgia native Tajuan McCarty.
The founder of The WellHouse, a faith-based, Christ-centered “place of grace” designed to help girls and women victimized into prostitution and sexual trafficking, McCarty shared her harrowing story with her audience at Southside Baptist Church Sunday afternoon.
“I want you to understand–prostitution is never a choice. It’s not something you want to do when you grow up. And in every strip club in America there is a VIP room where girls are basically sold off-stage for sex. I’ve helped rescue girls out of strip clubs . . . it’s the same thing with pornography. It’s not a choice, not even for the men,” McCarty said. “With pornography, you don’t see what goes on when they aren’t on camera. That they’re getting high in the corner so they can bear to go on with it. That the girl who looks 20 with all the makeup is really only 12.”
McCarty herself was just 11 when the father she had idolized, the one she’d constantly heard had planned for her, loved and wanted her, was finally released from prison. She wasn’t invited to his homecoming party. It was a sign of things to come.
“I began acting out. Hey, all of us rebel at least a little as adolescents. But when a kid is continually acting out, we need to ask ourselves what is going wrong in that child’s life. The first time I ran away, I was 12 and I ended up in Birmingham . . . I was handcuffed and locked up for 72 hours,” McCarty said. “ I felt like I was somehow marked from the way people in the system were treating me. It’s like I had a giant scarlet ‘A’ on my chest. So I put on an attitude as a defense.”
McCarty says she lost count of the number of times she ran away between the ages of 12 and 15.
“I ended up in the psych ward of a hospital for 17 days. They told me I was incorrigible and there was no hope for me. I ran away because I was a human being needing and looking for love and belonging; at home, my mother abused me and my father just wasn’t in my life. It finally got to the point where the group homes and shelters in Georgia wouldn’t take me. A foster home refused me because they knew I wouldn’t stick around for long.”
And then there was Tajaun’s older boyfriend.
“He took me home with him when I was 15. He’s the one who loved me and gave me a nice place to stay,” McCarty said.
“There were four other girls there . . . we looked just like a bunch of girls you’d see out at the skating rink or at the movies, having a good time together.”
It was the closest thing to a real family the teen had ever experienced. But there was a dark side.
“The other girls were all being prostituted. I actually felt like I was special to him because I only had to sell cocaine. And we all had quotas we had to meet to help out the ‘family.’”
And if those quotas weren’t met, the girls knew there would be consequences. Beatings, rapes, tortures. Everyone in the house had to watch.
Finally the day came when McCarty was intentionally not given enough drugs by her boyfriend to sell to make her quota.
“And so I had to sell myself . . . I ended up being trafficked in Birmingham so much, it became my home. But I have been sold in every state in this country, and Mexico and Canada, too. We were considered to be commodities,” McCarty explained.
“At one point, my pimp wanted to prosecute a very famous athlete who beat me while I was pregnant with one of my children. I refused to press charges, so my pimp beat me, too.”
The girl who didn’t like the way drugs made her feel and wouldn’t drink because her own dad was an alcoholic also found herself mired in drug addiction.
“My belief is we who have been victimized don’t have a substance abuse issue so much as the drugs are a symptom of what is happening to us. A way to escape the pain. We are now seeing a definite link between drug abuse and trauma.”
Finally, at the age of 26, McCarty said she started trying to “fix” herself.
“I started on a bachelor’s degree and became a social worker—the one thing I said I’d never be. I went through a 12-step program. I believed in God, just not in Jesus because he was all fire and brimstone and I didn’t want any part of that. I read every self-help book in existence,” she said.
“I ultimately went on to get two master’s degrees, all for the glory of Tajaun. My resume doesn’t impress me anymore, but I felt I needed to impress society.”
In between obtaining those two graduate degrees, McCarty admitted she relapsed into drug use and ended up being prostituted again. Already a convicted felon who had done time in Georgia, she was incarcerated for a second time.
“When I got out of Tutwiler, I put myself in a transitional home. I was struggling to fix myself yet again. Even though I had a solid professional history, I couldn’t get a job,” McCarty said. “ But I was able to get work in the office of that transitional home.”
In that area of the northeast Birmingham community of Woodlawn, there was another place that called itself the Dream Center.
“I asked myself what in the world was that all about? A dream center? So I buzzed myself in to see . . . and this perfect little spiritual Barbie starts talking about Jesus and Bible study and I am just about ready to run, then the last thing she says is, ‘I want to reach out to all the prostitutes.’ And that got my attention.’”
McCarty quickly recognized “Barbie’s” lack of knowledge about the lives of the women she wanted to aid (“She didn’t have a clue”).
“So I offered to give her a few bullet points to follow and planned a quick exit . . . the next thing I know it’s two hours later, she’s taken pages and pages of notes and asking me how I know all this.
And that’s when I told her. ‘I used to walk these streets.’ And she asked me to help her.
And I did.”
Tricked by Jesus
If McCarty ever writes a book about her experiences, she plans to call it Jesus Tricked Me.
“I mean, Jesus really pulled one over on me, I gotta tell you. There was this wonderful Birmingham radio DJ who led me to Jesus through love and grace . . . I was in such a rough place. I was in a lesbian relationship because, frankly, I hated men. And this friend loved me unconditionally, right where I was at, and still does and always will,” McCarty said with a smile. “And that’s what we have to do, love people right where they are at. I discovered I had a big hole that only Jesus could feel and that I didn’t have to keep on trying to fix everything.”
She discussed the myriad of barriers to service that many on the streets discover when they do seek help.
“You want to go to rehab, you’ve got to privately pay or have insurance. Relapse? You’re gone. Homeless shelters often won’t take you in unless you have ID. And actual proof of homelessness is required in Alabama,” McCarty said. “Shelters for abused women may not take you in if the violence hasn’t immediately happened or you can’t prove you’re in a relationship. If you’re being pimped out, he’s in a relationship with several other females.”
Starting out with a vision and just $33 in the bank, The WellHouse, based in Pell City, has grown to have a budget of $80,000 a month and continues to expand its facilities and services for those victimized by prostitution and sexual trafficking.
‘Commanded to love’
“We offer these women rehab treatment, educational opportunities, job training and medical care along with the basics of food, clothing and shelter at no cost to them. I am asked, do we take gay people? Yes. Muslims? Yes. We are Christ-centered and Christ commanded us to love,” McCarty explained.
The oldest survivor currently being helped is 59 and the youngest, 13.
“The youngest child we’ve ever rescued was a one-year-old baby from a child pornography ring involving 11 children. And by the way, these were all kids born and raised right here in Alabama,” McCarty emphasized. “The fact is, 40 percent of the sexual trafficking going on right now in the U.S. is in the southeast, and you are sitting right in the middle of one of the busiest circuits.”
The survivors that The WellHouse has rescued cross all racial and socioeconomic lines, she said.
“Some are black but the majority are white. Some come from poor neighborhoods but also we’ve had someone from Mountainbrook, which is the fifth richest city in the nation.”
McCarty is proud to see those helped by The Wellhouse move on and live free from the spiritual and psychological chains of their past.
“I remember being told some truths by a pimp. He told me that he would never be arrested, but that I would be. He said people would drive right by me and never stop to help me. And he was right. He also told me that I’d never be able to walk into a church in my spandex and high heels,” McCarty recalled.
“Please, if someone walks into your church dressed like that, and you can see what they ate for breakfast, don’t talk about their clothes.
Love them. You can get to the clothes later. When we are willing to open those doors to others, Jesus will give us the opportunities to serve as His hands and His feet.”
She closed with one of her favorite Bible verses.
“Proverbs 5:21 says, ‘She is clothed in strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.’ We can laugh at that old devil, because he’s just not creative enough to see what we can become.”
A number of those attending McCarty’s presentation contributed goods to be distributed to the survivors served by The WellHouse, with a love offering taken up afterwards. Anyone wishing to have McCarty give a presentation for their church or organization should contact email@example.com. To learn more about The WellHouse and how to donate or volunteer, visit the website at www.the-wellhouse.org.