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Wednesday, March 7, 2007 02:33 pm

Whatever it takes

Finding help at PORA, Amy Brown is one determined former prostitute

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Untitled Document I thought she had star quality, like Reese Witherspoon, maybe, the way she got up to speak before the audience of some 200 people at the PORA fundraising dinner March 3. She was poised, funny, like when she told about almost getting kicked out of PORA, a little embarrassed by a few details of her story but in a charming way. She had gone to work for an escort service, and learned the sex trade, because she didn’t want to steal. Then, as I listened to 29-year-old Amy Brown, her real name, it sank in that this was no high-class hooker but a poor little girl who is lucky to be alive. She was no practiced speaker but instead was telling her story in public for the first time, scared to death. She’s pretty now, but not long ago she was down to 87 pounds, covered with bruises, and miserable with drugs, alcohol, and a life of destruction. She’s a star, not of movies, but of long-term tough-but-compassionate recovery, the PORA way. Now, after a year in the two-year program, recovering but still fragile, she has turned from rule-breaker to advocate. “I’m huge about these rules,” Amy says. She was 11 when her father was murdered. She hated her mother and was sent away to live with relatives in Utah and then a foster home, where she was sexually abused. At 17 she had a son, who was taken away from her four years later because of her drug use. “That’s when I looked up escort services in the phone book.” At 23 she tried to commit suicide by slitting her own throat. Her drug use started with acid, weed, and alcohol when she was 12, then meth at 13, and heroin at 21. She eventually switched to cocaine: “That was a monster. I ran out of veins I could use.”
Inspired by her banquet speech, I arranged to interview her at PORA’s building on 11th Street. She told me she was in a 30-day drug-treatment program in Quincy when she first noticed a brochure for PORA with its old name, Prostitutes, Options, Referrals and Alternatives. Prostitution, unmentionable in the culture of drug-treatment centers, was a piece of the addiction mess Amy hadn’t found help for. PORA also offered a long-term residential treatment program, something she knew she needed: “I wanted to want to quit for many years.” She called PORA but couldn’t get in. Months later, she was arrested on drug charges in Charleston, placed under the supervision of a drug court, and threatened with prison. A call to the organization that now calls itself Positive Options, Referrals and Alternatives turned up an available bed. That was in March 2006. “I just knew that this was where I needed to be,” she says. “It has the time. You can’t change overnight.”
Long-term residential treatment centers for women trying to leave prostitution are cruelly rare. The handful of others are in major cities. Springfield has one because a woman named Dee Nelson, after trying to help a prostitute she met on a street corner, envisioned it in the early ’90s. With 11 others, she formed the organization in 1992, and its shelter was opened in 1997. Since then PORA has offered hope and housing to 110 women. The success rate is carefully stated by executive director Bernie Carver: “Over the past five years, people who were here six months or more have a better than 80 percent chance of long-term success” — which also means that many don’t make it. PORA’s task is like “reparenting,” Carver says. “Women need a lot of support.” Amy, a treatment veteran, adds this: “We’re wasting tons of money on 30-day treatment centers with no aftercare. There are only six beds here, but the impact PORA makes is much larger than its capacity.”
Amy’s year has been filled with 12-step meetings and therapy sessions. “I wasn’t used to talking about my issues,” she says. “The therapy I had as a child was led by the therapist. Here, you get to hear your questions and then your answers. They just say ‘uh-huh.’” She took GED classes, got tutoring in math, and passed the GED exam in June. Now she has a restaurant job and is enrolled at Lincoln Land Community College. Once anorexic, she’s learning to like food again. She took parenting classes and gained the right to visit her son, now 11. They had two four-hour sessions together before Christmas. She writes to him often and is tape-recording a Harry Potter book to send to him. “I’m trying to do everything I can to get him back,” she says. Amy is clear about her goals: “I want to get my son, to be self-sufficient, to be healthy and happy.” She sighs and smiles: “I still have a long way to go. I’m not sure how much it will take. I’m going to do whatever it takes.”

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.
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