The girls are not bad girls.
They are unruly, yes, defiant at times, yes, but not bad. If there’s anything bad about them, it’s where they’ve come from. Often they are missing mothers, fathers, sometimes both. They’ve been prostituted, raped, beaten, abandoned. They drink, smoke various substances, get into trouble in school and get picked up off the streets by police. But here, in their Saturday morning Purple W.I.N.G.S. class, they are good students, bright and eager to please.
It’s easy to imagine them being sent to the principal’s office in a regular classroom setting. They have trouble raising their hands to be called on. They talk out of turn and sometimes talk back. But they’re here, trying to better themselves, and in many cases, they want to be here. It’s one of few places where they feel understood.
Their peers know what it’s like to get into trouble, to be looked down upon. The unluckier of the girls advise the more fortunate ones. You don’t want to be where I’ve been, they say. Stay in school. Better yourself.
As outcasts and troublemakers, respect is hard to come by. But here, it is a staple, a given.
“You see them talking and laughing and even creating havoc,” says Purple W.I.N.G.S. founder Toshia Shaw. “Where else do you see that? They can’t do it at home because no one’s listening, and they can’t do it at school because there’s no time.
“It’s an outlet. They can be themselves with us. There’s no judgment. I allow them to curse, scream, cry. You see the emotion. Whatever they’re feeling at the time, it comes out, and we allow them to do that.”
Purple W.I.N.G.S., which stands for “women inspiring noble girls successfully,” is a nonprofit organization that helps young women overcome vices and abuse. Its weekly class and mentoring programs teach girls to live healthy, fulfilling lives.
The program is a success, in part, because the teachers can relate to their students.
Shaw knows firsthand what it’s like for the girls. Coming from a violent home life in Tennessee, she fled as soon as she could. When the opportunity to escape came in the form of a military position, she took it. But when Army pay couldn’t make ends meet, she took up a job stripping, which is how she came to understand “the life” — a euphemism for working as a prostitute.
Shaw, like many of the girls she mentors, didn’t choose it for herself.
“I decided to go to a nightclub by myself,” Shaw recalls of her kidnapping 16 years ago, when she was in her 20s. “I never made it into the nightclub.”
Outside, a handsome man and his friend approached her. Did she want to go to breakfast? Did she need a ride? She wanted to go, but she would take her own car. What could be the harm?
She followed her new friends to a well-known Memphis eatery, and sat down to chat. She told them that she had been in the service, had moved to Las Vegas but was back home in Tennessee, living with her young son and her mother.
In the middle of their conversation, Shaw excused herself to the restroom. When she returned, the man’s friend was gone, and his demeanor had changed from warm to cold.
Her purse was still there, but he had taken her ID. Calmly, he said, Here’s how this is gonna go. You’re not going to move. You’re going to do exactly what I tell you to do. You’re going to follow me to this motel.
Under the table, he pressed a gun to her leg.
“I did as I was instructed,” Shaw says, pausing to compose herself. “If I told anyone, if I decided I wasn’t going to do it, he was going to kill my son and kill my family. He knew where I lived. I was under his command.”
Shaw’s hell lasted one week before she lost her will to live. During that time, she was allowed to return home, but forbidden to share her troubles. If she did, he said, he would murder her loved ones. Each night, her pimp raped her — “got her ready” to service a parade of men. She pleaded with each of the johns, begging them not to touch her, and even after they did, she begged them to call for help, to tell someone she was there suffering against her will. None did, and after a week of torture, she resolved to leave. She didn’t know what might happen to her, and at that point, she didn’t care.
“That last day, when I decided, I looked at him and said, ‘I’m going to drive away now, and I’m not coming back. I don’t care what you do to me; you do it to me, but you don’t bother my family. You kill me because I refuse to be hurt like this again. This is not why I was born, this is not why God made me.”
To her surprise, the pimp let her go. He continued to call, but when she refused to meet him, he eventually stopped. When she thinks back to what might have happened if she would have refused him to begin with, she has no doubts that he would have killed her.
“I was so ignorant, so young, so naive,” Shaw says. “You make one bad decision and it can change your life forever.”
Almost two decades later, Shaw still battles post-traumatic stress syndrome, though it’s not apparent. She is cheerful, charismatic and confident. The abuse used to haunt her in the form of nightmares, paranoia and anger. Today she still suffers nausea, but considers it a significant step forward. She dreams of the day she can tell her story without crying.
“I was a grown woman,” Shaw says, sobbing. “How could someone do this to a girl who is 12, who should be playing with dolls?”
Michelle is one of the more memorable students in the program. She is strong and determined, wise beyond her years. She is barely 18, but by the way she speaks, she is 40. She is one of the ringleaders in the group, and when she shares, the other girls take note. She preaches her life story, one that makes her peers feel fortunate and empowered.
“You think you’re cool, that you have friends,” she warns the other girls. “You might smoke, kick it, but when you get locked up, you learn who your friends are.”
At 9 years old, Michelle says, she was molested by a family member. At 10, raped. At 12, she was prostituted by her aunt. It is estimated that 30 percent of sex-trafficking victims are first trafficked by a family member.
Michelle, unlike most of the other young women, initially came to the program on her own free will, having nowhere else to turn. Two weeks ago, she turned 18 and enrolled to earn her GED. In the future, she hopes to become an anesthesiologist.
Jasmine’s story is perhaps more common at Purple W.I.N.G.S.
Jasmine, who was raised single-handedly by her father, ended up in the program because she got mixed up with the wrong crowd and started dating a boy who got her into trouble. She was caught with drug paraphernalia at school and was court-ordered to come to class. Jasmine says she almost immediately began to change her behavior.
“It was amazing. I opened up so easily,” she says. They care for me. They’re here. If I need anyone, I could give them a call at midnight, or at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
This is often the case with the students, says volunteer Zidonia Wong, who has been with Purple W.I.N.G.S. since its 2010 beginning. Many times, the girls just need to be told they are loved, that personal relationships can be positive, without the expectation of something in return. Shaw says that many girls go through life without hearing the words “I love you” until they attend her class.
All was well and Jasmine was set to graduate when, for the first time since she was 3 years old, her mother returned.
Although she was happy to have her mom at home, the experience confused Jasmine and ultimately hurt her when her mother once again disappeared without warning.
“She sent a text to my dad saying ‘I’m going to California,’” Jasmine says. “That was it.”
To cope with the pain, she smoked marijuana and ended up back in court, where she was reordered to take the class. This time, she’s determined to finish and hopes to return after graduation to lend a hand. She says Purple W.I.N.G.S. has taught her self-worth and how to take a step back and evaluate situations she finds herself in.
“They made me realize I have choices in life,” she says. “I don’t have to go down the road I’m going. I can stop and do what I want to do.” Among her goals for the future is to become a pediatric nurse, and to continue keeping a journal.
Writing is a skill at the center of Purple W.I.N.G.S. Shaw has published two books, High Stakes and Roulette, about the nightlife and slippery nature of living in Sin City. She says that writing saved her life and allowed her to transcend her abuse.
Each of her Saturday classes begins with a free-write, a way for the girls to share what is going on in their lives and express anything that’s bothering them. The students are often excited to share their successes, and equally open about sharing their problems. It’s a common sight to see girls cry in class.
“I have something very bad to tell you,” one girl offered up on a recent Saturday. “I got suspended this week.”
“I stayed sober!” another girl cheerfully announces. Her success is met with a high-five from Wong and affirmation from her peers.
Other girls are dealing with rumors spread by their high school classmates, or are resisting the temptation to drink or smoke.
Shaw started Purple W.I.N.G.S. after earning her degree in health sciences and recognizing a need for such a program. Back home in Tennessee, there were programs for girls only, Shaw says. Here, after some research, she could not find anything similar, so she started it herself.
W.I.N.G.S. serves girls ages 13 to 18, and is a 12-week class designed to teach various life skills. The students learn about self-esteem and self-image; domestic violence and how to deal with bullies; financial literacy and job skills; and how to create healthy relationships with boundaries and respect.
Shaw wants girls to know that their are paths to success without having to sell their bodies, or even show them off, a notion that is pushed by a city like Las Vegas, one with so many strip clubs and “girls direct to you.”
Shaw doesn’t want to put down that lifestyle, but she wants to present alternatives to the girls.
“We’re not trying to change the culture of Las Vegas,” Shaw says. “The culture is important. We are demanding options.”
Where options are not available to these young girls, Shaw and her colleagues are creating them. Two years ago, Judge Steven Compan, along with coordinators Shannon Alvarez, Vance Knox and others, started Diversion Court, an optional juvenile-justice court meant to keep kids out of the system, or from falling deeper into it.
“We created this court to help kids who needed it and couldn’t afford the services,” Shaw says. Children and families who qualify are allowed to attend Diversion Court instead of formal court.
Court is held every Wednesday, and is completely volunteer-based. Judge Compan comes in on his day off to hear cases, and representatives of various social services groups, such as Purple W.I.N.G.S., show up to offer care. If the children succeed in their programs, they’re able to avoid formal court all together.
Observing Diversion Court, it’s often easy to see why the kids are troubled — their parents are often troubled. They lose their tempers and curse in court. They’re openly fed up with their children.
On two occasions recently, parents have indicated they want to emancipate their children rather than help them straighten up. When Compan explains to them that they can’t “emancipate” a child who is not self-sufficient, that it would be abandonment, they’re hesitant to accept this reality.
Their message is clear: They do not want their kids.
The court sees plenty of failures, but its the successes that keeps them going.
Compan says that in more than a few cases, Shaw has been responsible for saving lives. Once, a girl showed up high to court, and it was Shaw who was able to recognize the symptoms of overdose. She was rushed to the hospital and treated. Had she not gone at that moment, Compan says, she might not have survived. Another time, a mother was forced to temporarily leave her daughter in the care of friend, who ran a group home. Unbeknownst to the mother, prostitution was taking place in the home, and her daughter had almost fallen victim to it. Shaw found out and removed the girl from the house immediately.
It’s Shaw’s ability to gain trust and coax this kind of information out of her students, that makes her so invaluable, Compan says. Often times, she’s able to see what’s really going on in a girl’s life. A girl may have gotten into trouble for curfew violations, when really she has been working the streets.“She finds out a lot of information we don’t know,” Compan says.
And another thing, Knox adds, laughing as he watches her bounce around and crack jokes after court: “She keeps it real.”
Keeping Purple W.I.N.G.S. in business has been a struggle.
Ideally, the nonprofit would have a place to call its own, a
24-hour meeting place where girls could find safety and camaraderie at any hour. Also ideally, it would have funding.
Shaw holds her class in a conference room, donated on weekends by the owner of Emergency Medicine Physicians, where she works full-time. Other than that, and a couple of private donations, Shaw, Wong and the other volunteers keep it going on their own. Often, the girls don’t have lunch money, don’t have proper clothing or basic hygiene items. Those expenses come out of the volunteers’ own pockets.
Shaw says she has approached government and other social services organizations without luck, but her failures don’t discourage her. She believes mentoring young women is her purpose and will not give up, not while there is a need.
And there is a need.
Each year in the United States, 100,000 girls are trafficked, according to Nevadans for the Common Good, an interfaith group that focuses on education, sex trafficking of minors and immigration, among other issues. In the past decade, 2,229 children have been recovered from sex trafficking in Las Vegas. One-hundred-seven were saved last year alone.
Until that number dwindles to zero, Shaw will have work to do.
“You have to choose your battles,” she says, “and I choose to help my babies live, and smile, and heal.”