The A List: Saving Grace


A List DTajuan McCarty, founder of the WellHouse, rescues girls from the life in which she was once trapped.

Written by Lindsey Lowe Osborne • Photography by Beau Gustafson

 

You’ve probably seen photos or read other news stories; you’ve heard that the sex trafficking industry is alive and well, and you’ve heard of the people who are rising up against it. But what you might not have imagined—what you might not be able to pass by—is that it’s happening here. Not just in the United States, but in Alabama, in Birmingham. Tajuan McCarty knows that not because she devotes her life to rescuing girls from that fate, though she does do that; she knows it all too well because two decades ago, she was brought to Birmingham as part of the sex trafficking industry. “I know Birmingham is a hotspot for this. We are on a circuit: Birmingham, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville, and Memphis,” McCarty says. “I was brought here (trafficked here) so much it became home to me. I have rescued a girl from the exact same house I had been taken to, 25 years later. We have rescued from Mountain Brook, Cahaba area, Hoover, Vestavia, Woodlawn, West End, Center Point, Downtown, Fultondale, Gardendale, and more.”

McCarty was caught up in sex trafficking and the life it brings—drugs, pimps, truck stops, and strip clubs—for more than 10 years. During that time, she was trafficked across 48 states, Mexico, and Canada; she became addicted to the drugs she sold for her pimp and was arrested when she was 26. It turned out to be her saving grace. “I saw a way out of the dark world I was trapped in. I began attending a 12-step program and from there, I embarked on my education, gaining my degrees,” she says. “But the most important thing that changed in my life was truly discovering who Jesus was and his love for me. It took 25 years, but I finally understood that I had been victimized and that I didn’t deserve anything that happened during that frightening period. I allowed myself to be lost in his restorative love and I continue to let him heal my emotional wounds.”

McCarty went on to earn her bachelor’s of science in social work and two masters degrees, one in public health and one in public administration. For several years, she worked for the Alabama Department of Human Resources. In 2010, she began to dream of something different. “Lisa-Roxanne Richardson and I were already doing street outreach at The Birmingham Dream Center and I knew there would come a time when a lady/woman/girl would want help and we wouldn’t be able to help her due to some barrier she had in us trying to get her into a safe place. Like she wouldn’t have ID, would still be high (or test positive) for drug use, or something of this nature. It happened on July 2, 2010,” she says. “We received a phone call from a local I.C.E. agent who had a woman on his couch that he was going to have to put in jail if we couldn’t find her a place…There was no place. She had to go to jail.

“God told me to write the plan, [so] I did. Business plan, SWOT analysis, competitor’s analysis, projected budget etc…I had no intention of opening the WellHouse, but God saw different. Everything was ready for someone to take it over with a house and the financial means. On Jan. 27, 2011, our crisis line received a phone call. A 21-year-old needed help or she would die. The WellHouse opened.” Since then, the WellHouse, with a mission to “provide a safe residential environment to sexually exploited women, offering spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical support services,” has rescued some 200 girls and can house up to 25 at one time (they currently have 16.) McCarty says that girls either call the WellHouse crisis line or are referred by other parties; when the WellHouse team receives a call, she says they tell the girls to meet them at a safe place or they simply go and get them if that’s not possible. “Yes, we just walk in and get them,” she says, noting that they do involve authorities if the girls are under 18 or if it’s a particularly hairy situation.

After rescue, girls are brought home to the WellHouse; for some, it’s the first safe place they’ve been in years. They begin with 30–45 days in a shelter program, which meets their immediate needs, and then walk through a nine–12 month program that includes life skills classes, counseling, case management skills, and more—whatever they need to get them back to the land of the living. McCarty’s main role these days is training and raising awareness and support; she recently stepped down as executive director and brought on Carolyn Potter for that role to help manage the growth of the WellHouse. Though it never gets easier, McCarty says the work must be done. “There is no way we could not do this,” she explains. “It is the team’s heart. Our ladies were just like me at one time: hopeless, helpless, and abandoned by all. We provide hope, love, and support through Jesus.

“The most challenging [thing] is hearing the horrific stories of the girls and ladies we help. I know what I have gone through is bad and evil…but some of their experiences break my heart. The most rewarding is seeing them smile and learn that God loves them, there is someone in their life they can trust, seeing them know they are safe and out of harm,” she says.

To donate to or volunteer with the WellHouse, or to find our more about its cause, visit the-wellhouse.org.

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