“As far back as I can remember my life was filled with fear, pain, and trauma.
Later on, sexual exploitation joined my list of terror.
Growing up, my family was dysfunctional. My mother worked three jobs just to take care of us. With three children, it took a lot to provide all our needs. I vividly remember the many times my alcoholic father viciously beat my mother. I was only a child. I couldn’t do much more than hold my siblings, trying to shield them from the brutality. And I would cry, feeling helpless to do anything.
At school, I faced a different kind of abuse. Because of the color of my skin and texture of my hair, I encountered intense discrimination. They called me names. Attacked me verbally, physically, emotionally. I was an outsider looking in because I looked different. Racial identity was never clear cut for me. Being a blending of African American, Caucasian, Native American, and Puerto Rican cultures, finding a place to belong was very difficult. And, so, the bullying and abuse continued. Eventually, my mom encouraged me to fight back. Again, I was only a child. What else could I have done?
My 30-year-old cousin moved in with us when I was 8 years old. I thought, with him in our house, everything would be alright. He played dolls with me. Took me to the store. Listened to me. He made me feel special and loved. Everything I thought I needed at the time, he was to me.
But then, he molested me.
He would tell me, “ If you say anything to anyone your father is going to kill your mom”. I believed him. And I was terrified of him. As a child, I was under his control.
The sexual abuse continued for some time until my father found me bleeding in the bathroom. He asked me what happened. Terrified, I said nothing. Somehow, my father knew. I heard a gunshot. Looking out the window, I watched my cousin run away from the house. My mother never found out. In fact, I kept the sexual abuse a secret for many years.
As I grew into a teen, I didn’t know how the horrors of my childhood would change my life. I ran away from home and rebelled against my mother. I was rebelling against any and everyone in my life due to the emotional pain that I held inside. I didn’t know how to express my agony in any other way. I needed help. I just could not figure out how to ask for it. I was only a child.
One day I met a man. He told me that I was beautiful. He made me feel special. No one had ever told me that I was pretty before. No one had ever treated me like that before. All I could do was smile at him. Soon, he began buying me beautiful cloths, expensive jewelry, taking me out to clubs introducing me as his lady. With him, I felt safe and secure.
I had no idea about the nightmare that was coming.
We went to one of his friends homes one night. We drank and laughed. We were having a good time. In an instant, everything went blank. I woke to find his friend on top of me having his way with me.
I looked to one side. The man who said he loved me sat watching. He looked at me with disgust.
“Bitch, get my money,” he said. He made it clear that I owed him now for all the things that he did for me. That day, I learned that nothing is free.
That day, my life as a prostituted child began. I was a terrified fifteen year old child standing on the corner of Logan and Division in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Pimped out and sold to the highest bidder. I was called a prostitute, a whore, and so many other hateful names that a child should never be called. No one seemed to see me as a fifteen year old. No one looked at me to see that I was being used, abused, sold. It was like the whole world just saw me as trash.
My pimp told me that if I ever left, I would be killed. That my family would be killed. Terrified, I did exactly as I was told. My mother never understanding why I was doing the things that I was doing. She didn’t know that my running away from home was my attempt at keeping them safe.
I was trafficked from city to city, state to state. If I did not bring in a certain amount of money, I was beaten. The brutality of the beatings included wire hangers, power cords, among other things.
After twenty years of this lifestyle, I became accustomed to living in fear and pain, darkness of the unknown. In order to stop feeling and thinking, I turned to drugs and alcohol.
I heard people talk about GOD all the time. In my mind, though, I thought that if there was a GOD, why did he allow all these horrible things to happen to me? It made no sense to me. All I wanted was to give up.
July 4, 2000 I tried to commit suicide. I was tired of living. I was sick and tired being afraid and alone. As I felt my heart beat slowing down, I knew it would soon be over. I screamed out to GOD, “If there’s a GOD, you better help me, Man. If you’re real, help me!”
I can’t explain what I felt at that time. I can, however, tell you this; it was the most warm and powerful hug. I felt as if a lifetime of pain was lifted I could see and feel the sun for the first time in years. I called home, hearing on the other end the sweetest voice I’d ever heard. The voice of my mom.”
After her powerful encounter with God, Leslie escaped from her pimp and got clean. She went on to pursue her Masters of Social Work from Grand Valley State University. In 2005, Leslie established the nonprofit residential program, Sacred Beginnings, to help victims of sexual exploitation in West Michigan.