Brown Bags and Backpacks Spreading Hope in Huntington
I grew up until I was 22 years old in Huntington, West Virginia. My home town reached international acclaim as the most obese and most unhealthy city in our nation back in 2010 when Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” highlighted Huntington in the first season. Not long ago Huntington hit the news again when it was declared that one of the local hospitals was the number one site for delivery of crack-addicted babies. Since then West Virginia as a state has been declared the most psychologically depressed, overweight, unhealthy, and miserable state (which covers a myriad of negative conditions).
But that isn’t the Huntington where I grew up. I grew up in a town where families looked forward every year to the Band Festival Parade, where young teenagers could take the bus downtown to go shopping and see a movie, and no Christmas was complete without pictures with the Sears Santa followed by a drive to see the giant lighted star at the top of 29th Street hill. Dad took us to Ward’s for warm donuts (AFTER we’d had a good report from the dentist), we went to Camden Park, the local amusement park, every year at least once when the church had its annual picnic. And we played outside, unattended, all day and all evening, reluctantly trudging home only when we heard our Dads’ unique dinner time whistles. Every neighbor kept an eye out for every kid so we always knew our community had our backs.
I say all of that because recently I saw this article (below) from The Herald Dispatch about an amazing lady who is showing local prostitutes in Huntington that the community we remember still exists and has their backs. I’m asking that you Please take a minute to read about how a simple act of love turned into an amazing ministry that is helping women get off the streets. I can promise you will be moved to love and to action.
Effort to help get women off the street
By TAYLOR STUCK
HUNTINGTON – In a storage room on the campus of Lewis Memorial Baptist Church on West Pea Ridge in Huntington, Necia Freeman prepared the brown bag meals, coats and gloves she and others with the Brown Bags and Backpacks ministry would give out later that night.
“I didn’t even ask (the congregation) for gloves, but I found them in a bag in here,” Freeman said. “The Lord knows.” Freeman didn’t ask for gloves, but the local prostitutes she serves did. Each week, Freeman, her 17-year-old daughter and other women in the ministry pile into Freeman’s car and deliver meals to the women. They recognize her car and one woman even lovingly calls her “Captain Save-a-Hoe.”
Please see WOMEN/7A
Necia Freeman is the organizer behind Brown Bags and Backpacks, a ministry started out of her church that assists prostitutes by building trust with them and giving them clothing and food.
Lori Wolfe/The Herald-Dispatch
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Freeman said she has served 179 women since the Brown Bags and Backpacks ministry began seeking out prostitutes in 2011. Other than a meal, the bags include a Gospel tract and a card with a phone number on it for the women to call when they are ready to get off the streets.
The goal is to get the women into rehab and to show them the love of Christ.
The program originally started in 2010 as a backpack ministry for inner-city children who need meals on the weekends, which is now the “backpack” part of Brown Bags and Backpacks.
Every Friday, 58 children receive breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks to get them through the weekend.
Then, Freeman saw a small story in the paper about a prostitute in Gallipolis, Ohio, who was found murdered in a cornfield.
“It bothered me that that was it,” she said. “It said she was a prostitute, but I was like, ‘Nobody cares?’ She’s somebody’s mother, sister, daughter.” Turns out, she was the mother of a backpack recipient.
Clamping down on prostitution and striving to take the women off drugs and into treatment programs has become a focus for Huntington city off icials over the past year as they have wrestled with a spike in drug overdoses and overdose deaths.
But Freeman and her grouphave been on that mission for nearly four years now.
It began Nov. 10, 2011, with Freeman and another woman. They left brown bag meals on the steps of a house they knew housed multiple prostitutes (the man who owned it let them live there for sexual favors), then the pair walked 6th Avenue, lovingly called “Brown Bag Boulevard.” “We had no idea what we were doing,” Freeman said.
The next week, they passed out bags at an apartment building. “Hope” – all the women get pseudonyms – was in her room, starving, and saw the other women with the bags. As Freeman was leaving, she saw Hope standing in the doorway and they gave her a bag.
Hope later told them she found the tract and told the other women, “There is hope in this bag and I am taking it.” She got Freeman’s number from her landlord and they had lunch the next day.
Today, Hope is sober, married, expecting a child and graduating from college not only early but already with a job lined up.
“We are in it for the long haul,” Freeman said.
Freeman said she is led by the Lord. When she hasn’t seen a certain woman for a couple of weeks, she prays for guidance to find her.
Just a few weeks ago, she met a new woman who told her she had been looking for Freeman for a year.
“They know we are there,” Freeman said with tears in her eyes. “It was like, ‘You are still doing the right thing.’ They know we are there to help them,not there to hurt them. That was assurance from the Lord to keep driving out there making U-turns passing out food.” It takes time for the “girls,” as Freeman calls them, to fully trust her. First, they have to believe she isn’t an undercover cop.
Freeman and others in the ministry build relationships with the women. Three women write letters to them when they are in jail every week. They don’t support the women financially, but provide them with shampoo, clothing and support in the form of a hand to hold in the emergency room, a person to call after a rough night, a familiar face in the courtroom and a ride to a rehabilitation facility when they are ready to go.
Freeman said what many of them need is someone who will listen to them.
She said they love the women and they love them back.
“We love them in hard times,” Freeman said. “We love them firmly, spiritually. We love them through sickness and in health. We love them through rehab and detox.”
Most of the women served by the Brown Bags ministry havesimilar horror stories in their histories, Freeman said.
One woman was sexually abused by her father every day but Sunday, because it was the Lord’s day. Another woman has scars on her chest from when her parents extinguished cigarettes on her. Another was put on the school bus by her mother, then watched her drive away in a taxi, never to be seen again, while another woman was sold as an infant to an Atlanta drug dealer. Her father didn’t find her until she was 14. As a second-grader, Freeman said, that woman was sorting and delivering drugs.
Freeman said that’s why for many of them, prostitution isn’t really a choice. It’s all they’ve ever known. Like the woman who learned how to prostitute from her aunt.
“We’ve had one girl in the car twice to go to rehab and she backs out,” Freeman said of a woman who was abused since she was 9. “She’s scared. She says ‘This is all I’ve known since I was 9 years old.’ People don’t understand. It’s all she’s known and in her head, there has been so much that’s happened to her.” Freeman said the women’s view of rehab is from TV, laying on a couch talking to a doctor with a notepad.
“She says, for me to go to rehab, I have to talk about all that’s happened and I can’t go there,” Freeman said. “I ask them why they are doing drugs and they say, ‘Well, it’s to forget.’ Then I ask them if they’ve ever forgotten while doing drugs and they say no. So, let’s get you off drugs. And it’s awesome when it works.” It’s also why the brown bags and backpacks are one ministry. The abuses began when the women were 8, 9 and 10 years old – the same ages as the 58 children who receive food every Friday.
“While we are dealing with adult prostitutes and elementary age kids, they are one in the same,” Freeman said. “We have to catch it on a young level to prevent where they are today. I don’t think the system, be whatever reason it is, the system hasn’t always been coherent of taking care of these children when they are young.
“I do think it is our responsibility as a church and our responsibility as citizens, health care workers and teachers and everyone to report the abuse when you see the abuse. If you see the abuse continuing then you report it again. Then you shout louder and louder and louder until somebody listens. At least the children will know, someone tried to get me out of this mess. Sometimes that’s all they need to know, is that somebody tried.” Jim Johnson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, has said heroin is the prostitute’s pimp, which is the basis for the WEAR program, a drug court program for prostitutes. Two of Freeman’s girlshave died from overdoses since the ministry began.
Freeman said she supports the women going to jail, mainly because they are able to detox. Then she urges the women to leave the area for rehab, and she also makes them give up their cellphones.
“There’s nothing in there that they need,” she said. “You don’t need ‘Red head with lots of money’ anymore. That’s how they put the Johns’ numbers in their phones, or just license plate numbers.”
Freeman said the prostitution problem in Huntington is easing. She said two years ago, it would be nothing for them to hand out 20 bags and still have to turn women away. That’s not the case now.
“For us to change tomorrow, we have to look at what we did yesterday,” Freeman said.
Other than Hope, Freeman has seen many go into rehab, seven have been baptized and three are married.
But Freeman stresses this is not an easy fix. She said until society sees prostitution as a two-way crime, nothing will ever change. Along those lines, however, the Huntington Police Department announced Thursday that it will begin putting pictures of solicitors of prostitutes on billboards in an attempt to deter future Johns.
“These women are not having sex with themselves,” Freeman said. “They are having sex with a participant who is paying for sex … It’s unfair. It’s part of why they feel the way they do. You’ve confirmed what they already think about themselves.”
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