There are about 80 known women and girls being openly sexually exploited in Chilliwack.
It’s a big number, but one that pales in comparison to that of the unknown. Some estimate the real number could be as high as 400 to 800, just locally.
But it’s hard to know for sure, says Joan Goosen, head of a new ministry beginning in Chilliwack. That’s because typically only 15 per cent of this type of activity is conducted on the streets.
Each of those lives is a life worth saving, Goosen says. And with that front of mind, she’s establishing the Pearl Life Renewal Society. She hopes the society will connect with these women and girls, first to give them a bit of emotional shelter from their personal storms, and then to help them find their way back to life.
“We are planning to open a drop-in resource centre, somewhere in downtown Chilliwack,” Goosen says. It will be private, but easily accessible. It will be warm and inviting, and hopefully the first of many doors to open for the women who visit. They plan to provide counselling, connection to services, education, job and life skills, medical care and addiction treatment.
Goosen is a registered clinical counsellor with trauma experience, but she is coming at this venture from a place of faith.
“This is motivated by the love of Jesus,” she says, even though she has no plans to force her views on those who seek her help.
“I go where the people are at even though my faith does play a role in how I understand people,” Goosen explains.
But first, the society needs to establish a location. To do that, they are planning a fundraising evening next month that will help them get their footing.
The night will include a presentation from Goosen on the society, and one by Joy Smith from the Joy Smith Foundation. The Joy Smith Foundation’s mission statement is to “work to ensure that every Canadian man, woman and child is safe from manipulation, force, or abuse of power designed to lure and exploit them into the sex trade or forced labour.” They provide education, but also funding support for front-line organizations like Pearl Life Renewal.
But likely the most compelling story of the evening will come from Tamara Brown. While Goosen has been working toward creating this society since 2013, Brown came on board about eight months ago. And if Goosen is the passion and drive behind Pearl Life Renewal, then Brown is the one bearing first-hand knowledge.
“If there was a place like this out there, I might have saved myself a few years sooner,” she says.
Brown has a 10-year history of life as a sex trade worker, but her first sexual experiences were much closer to home.
“By 11, I was living in foster homes,” she explains. “I had been severely sexually abused by every male member of my family.”
The new homes she was placed in offered little more than a roof over her head. There were no services offered, no counselling for intense abuse she’d lived through.
“Back then they pretty much gave you your food and didn’t care if you skipped school,” she says. “There was a lot of peer pressure and you did pretty much whatever you had to, to survive.”
For her, one day that meant heading downtown to an area frequented by prostitutes.
“There are some big rocks downtown Kamloops,” she says. “That’s where they hang out. I went up to them and asked, ‘what do I do? Where do I stand? What do I do when they pick me up?’”
She was 13 at the time, but looked more like a 10 year old; first they told her to go home.
“I didn’t listen,” she says.
Every day as a sex worker was filled with “endless trauma,” she says. But the memory of that first time floods back to her in precise detail. It was in a hotel room with two men.
“I remember just sitting at that table. Scared to stay and too scared to leave. And that was the start of it,” she says. “I haven’t thought about that in years.”
About ten years later, she was sitting in a pre-trial cell. She had brought a bible, not to read but to rest her head on the cold concrete floor while she waited to see the judge. She had robbed a bank and was facing sentencing. She had already been in jail for three months at that point. While she had visited church as a way to escape the daily grind of prison — “they had cookies and coffee,” she laughs — she wasn’t a believer.
“I had no idea what or who God was,” she says.
But sitting on that cold floor, waiting for her sentencing, she decided to crack it open. The words on the page spoke to her, and she was still wiping away tears of joy when she faced the judge.
“I had dropped to my knees and prayed,” she recalls, saying “I’m done. I can’t do this anymore. Just give me this chance and I promise I won’t blow it.”
She was given a light sentence, house arrest in a Christian recovery house. That was eight years ago. Today, she has children, a husband, a life. And she has Goosen and Pearl Life Renewal Society, which happens to be faith-based.
“Chilliwack is tough, but it’s not a risk to me anymore,” she says. Brown has been through counselling, and found forgiveness for those who hurt her.
“I don’t blame anyone anymore,” she says.
Brown has been helping Goosen identify what women and girls need the most, what services would be redundant, and even what they should skip entirely. They hope to raise $70,000, enough to cover one year of operating costs.
They envision a society drop in that has beauty and a home-feel, “warm and inviting, comfortable, cheery, that resonates warmth,” Goosen says. “Somewhere you could put your feet up and have a cup of tea.”
More importantly, somewhere that these exploited women and girls will not be judged for who they are, how they look, or where they’ve been.
The long-term plan, perhaps in 2018, is to then create a boutique, one that will be run by the women they are helping. The boutique will give the women work skills, while helping to fund the drop-in centre. It’s a model they say is not happening in Chilliwack.
They are in the end process of gaining their registered charity status, Goosen says. Once that’s in place, they’ll be able to apply for some available grants.
Goosen hopes to have the society completely set up and the drop in ready to open by December, but feels early 2017 is more realistic.
They know the service is needed, in fact, that it has long been needed. They have heard from others in the service sector that there are many young girls who need help right now. Goosen is part of a ministry that meets beside Chilliwack’s needle exchange every other Friday afternoon, and knows the local need is dire.
“Girls are recruited from everywhere,” Goosen says, including parties and bars. “They want to be loved. They tell them they’re beautiful and they want to hear that.”
Tickets for the Pearl Life Renewal Society Fundraising Awareness and Dessert Evening, Nov. 25, are $10 per person, or $70 for a table of eight.
Tickets are available by calling 604-316-4877.
The evening takes place at Main Street Church at 9325 Main Street, beginning at 7 p.m.