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The 24/7 Crusade: One woman's fight to end human trafficking in Grand Rapids

Leslie King

Leslie King spent 20 years being sexually trafficked here in Grand Rapids. But her story isn't over. Seeking to help other women escape lives of prostitution, King formed Sacred Beginnings, the city's first survivor-led 24-hour victim advocacy center.
In a half empty church on the corner of Jefferson and Burton, boxes are stacked neatly at the edges of rooms and near staircases, the doors are locked yet eagerly opened to visitors, and only a few lights are turned on. There's something in the air here. A cautious anticipation, a heightened sense of waiting. It's clear that, although now only muffled conversation can be heard in one, upstairs office, the entire building will soon be filled with bustling voices, of exuberant joy, of hope, and of freedom.

At the top of a narrow staircase in one of the church's offices sits Leslie King. With a t-shirt that reads "Objectification is NOT sexy" and a name plate that proudly spells "girl boss," it's clear she means business. The office is filled with papers, of quiet, excited preparation. Casually seated behind her desk, cell phone at the ready to answer the call or text of anyone that needs her, King looks at home.

In her early fifties, King has the type of smile that is couched with experience, and tempered only by the occasional furrowing of the brow and long, intentional pauses that she takes when retelling a piece of the tumultuous story that is her past. But without hesitation, she begins. She knows it's important that everything is out in the open, for her, but more for those that come after.

"A childhood? What was that?"

"I was born in a very dysfunctional home," says King. She says this without hyperbole or apology; this is just a fact of her life. Born on Grand Rapids' Westside and raised by a chronically alcoholic father and workaholic mother, King witnessed violence and abuse at a very young age. "He used to beat my mother for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner," she says.

King's parents were a mixed race couple. Her father was Black and Puerto Rican, and her mother was Black, white, and Native American. Growing up with light skin and blonde hair and attending an almost all-Black school, King struggled to find her place. "Leslie didn't fit anywhere. I was always on the outside looking in," she says.

Often isolated, King's closest friends were her dolls, and the characters in books. "I used to read a lot of lot of books, I found solace in those books," she says. King also found hope in the Gospel music she often heard wafting from Gospel Temple Baptist Church next door.

At age eight, King's older male cousin moved in with her family. Thrilled to have a friend and protector, she soon became close with him. "It was some form of human contact," says King. However, the cousin soon began molesting her, and threatened that she would cause additional violence between her father and mother if she told anyone the truth.

Though King's father did eventually find out and chase his nephew from their home with the sound of a single gunshot, her father was later imprisoned on a murder charge. "I'm angry, I'm frustrated, I'm asking why," she says.

"My spirituality is straight out the door because I'm so mad." Mostly, she continued asking herself, "Why do I have to be all mixed up?"

"I think they put something in my drink to knock me out."

Frequently running away from home to escape the chaos of her family, King met her first pimp at age 15. "[He was a] very caring, very caring person…or so I thought," says King, who describes the man buying her gifts and taking her to restaurants, clubs, and bars, and introducing her to his friends. "What he was doing was turning me against my family…then started isolating me from them," she adds.

One night, after joining him in a club, King blacked out, and regained consciousness while being sexually assaulted by one of the man's friends. "At the age of 15, I was sold into the life of prostitution here in Grand Rapids, Michigan," she says. And for 20 years after that night, King was trapped in the cycle of prostitution, drugs, and violence.

"I was free."

Though she feared that she would never escape, her pimp was fortuitously imprisoned and she was left momentarily alone, able to leave the house that had imprisoned her for so long. "I was renegade," says King. "I had no man I was on my own." However, "But that's all I knew. I had a fear of anything else."

Still addicted to drugs and alcohol and struggling to regulate a life that had been twisted beyond recognition, King attempted to take her own life on July 4, 2000. In a desperate plea, she called out, "If there's a God in heaven man help me, help me." And in that moment, in the darkness, after decades of rejection, violence, and abandonment, of an absence of self worth, of constant fear, she received what she calls "the hug that I never received from my parents."

"I received it. I felt that," she adds.

Immediately after this incident, King entered a 30-day detox program with the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, became clean, and after one year joined the staff as the first ever resident to do so. Working as a home health aid, King could connect with those struggling with addiction and with a lack of hope. Her talent was soon recognized by the Grand Rapids Police Department and she became an outreach coordinator in the Social work and police partnership (SWAPP) program.

Here, King found her calling.

"It's between me and God."

"[I was] working with the same women that I used to get high with, work the corner with, some of us even had the same pimp," says King, who worked tirelessly on behalf of these women, advocating for them in the court system and assisting them with social services. Though she felt she was finally making a difference, she couldn't help but ask herself, "At the end of the day, when it's over, where do they go?"

This persistent thought remained even while King surprisingly received a home loan and $5,000 down payment from the seller of her future house. "My credit is so bad you can't staple nothing to it," says King. But somehow, "I got approval for a loan right there in the hot sauce aisle." Excited to have a place to call her own after decades of displacement, King didn't hesitate when a friend called her with an urgent request.

The friend desperately wanted to escape the clutches of S. Division and a life of sex work. "Where am I going to take her?," Leslie asked herself. But the answer, like so many of the answers she had received since reclaiming her life, was clear. "Right here."

Moving her friend into her own home, caring for her, and soon creating similar safe situations for others looking to escape prostitution, King had stumbled upon a viable solution for those women lacking the resources and the hope to restart their lives. Renting other houses and inviting former sex workers to live, recoup, and rebuild, King was laying the foundation for Strong Beginnings, a nonprofit and passion project years in the making.

"Every day we wake up is a new beginning."

By 2005, "it just took off," says King. Conducting street outreach, guiding women out of prostitution and into safety, confronting pimps, and assisting those women with social services, King soon made a name for herself among the sex workers and those that exploited them.  "She is fierce. She will chase down a john. She will go at a pimp. She has no fear," says Sheri Powell, King's friend, assistant, and reliable resource of three years.

"I know how to move in this lifestyle. I leave a footprint," says King with confidence and a wry smile. "People know where I'm at at any different time. The streets talk."

Spending over ten years working out of her own home and partnering with agencies like the Sexual Exploitation Data Project to learn more about human trafficking here in Grand Rapids, King has become a forced to be reckoned with. Though data on trafficking in Michigan is scarce and King hasn't kept exact numbers, she and Powell estimate that she has personally assisted more than 800 women through her outreach.

One such client offered her own personal testimony. After being trafficked from age 14 to 19, Karen (name changed) was 52, and struggling with addiction and a dangerous stalking situation. "I was in a whirlwind is loss and desperation and hopelessness," she says. ""I was at the end of my rope and I was ready to kill myself." King reached out to Karen through Facebook, offering hope, advice, and even assistance in moving from Oklahoma City to Grand Rapids where she could find solace in Sacred Beginnings. "I cannot begin to tell you how different my life is today. How much hope there is," says Karen.

"If there's anything that Ms. Leslie taught me it's that I have the power to say,  'this is not how the story ends.'"

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King continues to serve and house women out of her own home, and is excitedly preparing to open Sacred Beginnings at 1975 Jefferson SE in the spring. The first survivor-led, 24-hour advocacy center in Grand Rapids, women who enter here will receive friendship, refreshments, and patient assessments. "When they're ready we'll be able to get them into some form of treatment," says King. But most of all, "We will be able to meet them where they are."

To learn more about human trafficking in Kent County, visit stopthistraffic.org. To report a tip or find out how you can help, call the Kent County Human Trafficking Taskforce at 616-726-7777.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

Video: Some Angels Fight from Baas Creative on Vimeo.
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