Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Fort Myers ministry helps women leave sex trade

Click here to see full article with photos and video

August 31, 2009

BY Cristela Guerra

For seven years and in 13 cities, Julie Taylor Shematz was Diamond. She danced in front of strangers in dark, smoky rooms to make a living.

In the dressing room, it was a different story.

“She would come in and say she’d had it,” Shematz said. “She” was any of her fellow strippers at any given time.

“She’d be bawling, crying and cussing, saying she’s quitting. And everyone knew she’d be back.”

Shematz, 44, has given up the strip-club circuit and now headlines Beauty From Ashes with her husband, Steve. The nonprofit counsels erotic dancers, sex workers, porn actors and sex-trafficking victims.

Starting Tuesday, Shematz’s ministry will hold its annual Beauty From Ashes National Strip Club Outreach & XXX Ministry Training at Word of Life Church in Fort Myers.

Its purpose is to coach volunteers on how to reach out and offer workers in sex trades a way out.

In the sex industry, Shematz said the line between stripping and exploitation can often become blurred.

“I didn’t realize was how all that mental, physical, verbal abuse would affect me over time,” she said.

On the horizon, Shematz is seeking to develop Freedom Children’s Home, a home for minors who are victims of domestic sex trafficking.

Nola Theiss, coordinator of the Lee County Human Trafficking Task Force and executive director of Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships, said there are only two other homes in the nation that reach out to juvenile sex victims.

“A 12-year-old gets picked up and forced into the sex trade,” Theiss said. “She’s under the radar for three years until she’s rescued. But what do you do then? You don’t put her in the 10th grade and say ‘good luck.’”

Detective Mike Zaleski of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office has seen too many trafficking cases with young girls in prostitution rings.

“There are many documented cases where victims have been sexually battered, beaten, tied up, and also tortured,” he said by e-mail. “In every instance there have been emotional traumas that the victim has endured.”

Shematz works up to 60-hour weeks with the “overcomers,” as she refers to the women. Through her Web site and social networking sites such as Facebook, she reaches dozens.

“It takes a long time for these girls to become adjusted to society,” she said. “The temptation to go back is always there crouching at your door.”

Aid could be assistance through education, job placement, relocation if necessary, and short-term housing.

Shematz visits the ministry’s adopted club, Fantasy’s at the Beach in Fort Myers Beach, once or twice a month, bringing food, provisions and sometimes prayer. She also has referred women to her home church, Word of Life Ministries in Fort Myers.

The church’s New Life Center on Collier Avenue is a self-contained haven for people looking to change their lifestyle, and an alternative to jail. The facility houses 113, providing room and board while clients go through a rigorous 18-month program.

“We provide personal counseling and biblical healing. There’s a need in the community for restoration,” said Bishop Gaspar Anastasi, who founded the first center 26 years ago in Freeport, N.Y., and in Fort Myers six years ago.

The program costs $700 per student, which the church’s congregation pays for through donations. The ministry boasts a 98 percent success rate.

Woman and men at the Word of Life Church eat, sleep and pray in separate areas.

Some mothers live at the facility with their children.

Arneteria Benford-Jones, 36, hopes to join the program. The Fort Myers woman met Shematz through church.

“I started at a (strip) club in Tampa,” Jones said. “I was 19 years old. You see all activities, club owners, drug dealers and pimps. It made me grow up fast.”

Jones said she’d been beaten and raped while feeding a cocaine addiction. Now, she considers herself an “overcomer.”

“I look at Julie and I don’t know why she loves me so much,” Jones said. “God sends people into your life for a reason. Though you struggle and go through storms, that’s what makes me special. If God can help me, he can help anyone.”

Reality struck Shematz when she decided to complete her college degree at 28. She was taking classes in Indianapolis while working up to five part-time jobs.

“I just thought to myself, ‘I’ll do it for a short while,’” Shematz said about stripping. A short while turned to years, even while working at what she called “the nicest club in Indianapolis.” Stripping fed her desire for attention, Shematz said, but it also made her hate herself later.

Today, Shematz has trained outreach groups in Indianapolis, Detroit and Daytona Beach — all cities in which she performed.

“All little girls, when they’re young, get up on a coffee table and ask their dad, ‘Am I pretty? Am I pretty?’” she said. “A lot of these girls never had this, and on stage what they’re saying is, ‘Look at me, do you like me? Do you want me?’”

Jeff Isacksen, 41, night manager at Fantasy’s, has watched Shematz come in to speak to his club’s dancers for years.

“The truth is, it’s a tough business that takes a lot of trust,” Isacksen said.

“But it gets old fast,” Isacksen said. “It’s more grief and heartache than anything else.”

Fantasy’s is the only strip club in the area in which Shematz has ministered. She’s waiting for the right time to go to other clubs in town.

Not all performers want to be saved. At Lookers on Fowler Street, Zahara works on her routine making what she said is up to $500 a night at times.

She’s not ashamed, but said she’s used to people such as Shematz telling her to quit.

“Everyone sees strippers as drug addicts and whores, but the thing is, a lot of the girls aren’t,” said Zahara, who declined to give her real name. “I’ve been clean for six months.”

The 21-year-old said she strips to provide for her sister and niece. She said it’s hard to do sober, but she tries.

As a professionally trained dancer, Zahara’s love is the waltz. Instead of gliding across a ballroom, her body takes shape around a pole, spinning and contorting with the rhythm.

To her, “Lookers is like a family.” But Zahara has other dreams. “Sometimes it’s hard to put on that smile,” she said. “But it pays the bills.”


No comments: