Wendy Brown remembers a 14-year-old Ethiopian girl she met who was involved in prostitution. On the streets, the type of work she had been involved in made her seem older than her years.
When Brown sat and talked with her about who she was and what she liked, Brown said she seemed like a normal teenager.
Topics of conversation included music and hair and boys she actually liked, not things like how much she had to charge her “clients.”
Brown, a local author originally from Bradley County, emphasized the importance of sharing stories to the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club Thursday.
The teenage girl who Brown had gotten to know through Ellilta International, a Cleveland-based organization that helps people overcome having been caught up in sex trafficking and prostitution, later found herself in prison.
A “client” had refused to pay for the girl’s services, and she felt she really needed the money. She stole the money from the man’s wallet and got caught.
When Brown and others who were on the trip with her heard she had been thrown in prison, they went to bail her out.
As they walked through the prison block to leave, Brown said the other prisoners were chanting at the girl, saying “Trash! Trash! Trash!”
After she told the story to Rotarians, Brown said she felt she needed to continue working with Ellilta International and telling people’s stories as an author.
She wanted people to know that girls like the one she met in Ethiopia are, in fact, not trash. It is important to tell stories because of the impact they can have.
“That’s why I work there,” Brown said. “They’re not trash.”
Growing up, Brown said her father would take her gold prospecting in Georgia and would tell her stories as he worked.
They would often meet new people and learn their stories on those trips. Brown said they would sometimes even knock on the doors of strangers and ask if they could sit on their porches and talk.
As she got to know more and more people, she was fascinated by the fact every person had some kind of story.
She said the stories she would hear would become her thoughts as she played with her toys later. They affected her.
Hearing other people’s stories also taught her the importance of her own personal story.
As an author, Brown has helped two fellow Cleveland residents tell their stories.
She has written “Revolving Choices: Playing Roulette With Life” with Evie West, an officer with the Cleveland Police Department and “Equipped to Bless: Finding Relevance in the Stories of Your Life” with Pete Vanderpool, who works with The Santa Project.
In “Equipped to Bless,” she spends part of the time talking abouther own personal story, which includes refusing to have an abortion after being told she would miscarry a baby and then giving birth to a healthy son despite the doctor’s prediction.
“That story equips me to bless others,” Brown said. “That qualifies me to speak to others.”
Realizing the importance of stories has had an effect on her work with Ellilta International.
Brown said problems like prostitution and sex trafficking are not just limited to far-flung places like Ethiopia.
She believes telling these people’s stories will impact their lives for the better. Not only that, she said sharing one’s personal story — no matter how tame it might sound — may encourage others to speak up to ask for help for themselves or others.
She said no little girl adorning herself with pretty princess costumes ever dreams of being a prostitute when she grows up.
Often, people are forced into that profession, Brown said.
Sometimes, prostitution does not look like skimpy outfits and sky-high heeled shoes, she added.
It may look more like jeans and a sweatshirt on a woman hiding a painful story she doesn’t think she can share with anyone as she goes to the store to buy groceries.
“It doesn’t look like that, but it exists in Bradley County,” Brown said. “How else can we help them but through stories?”
At Thursday’s Rotary meeting, members voted to sponsor four young people to attend an upcoming youth leadership camp through the Salvation Army.
Rotarian Bob Naber was announced to be the club’s new treasurer after the previous one had to step down because of health reasons.
The club has received the Star Club designation, meaning that the equivalent of $100 from each member had been donated to the Rotary organization.
The team of Rotarians who had traveled to Honduras to help install a water treatment system was set to return to Cleveland on Saturday.
The community service club meets weekly on Thursday at 7 a.m. at SkyRidge Medical Center.