By: Madison Harvey
Tajuan McCarty is a survivor of human trafficking. McCarty grew up in Carrollton, Georgia. Her mother worked late hours, and her father was in and out of jail for drug-related charges. When she was 3 months old, her parents divorced, and the idea was instilled in her that where love was, pain was bound to come.
She grew up going to a church that instilled a character of “hellfire and brimstone”, so she didn’t believe God loved her.
McCarty was popular in middle school and high school because she was independent and “didn’t need anyone”. At age 12, McCarty was raped by two teenage boys in her backyard—boys who she considered to be friends.
She was embarrassed and ashamed and refused to tell anyone—even her own mother. McCarty saw her only option as running away from home. Over the next three years, she would live on her own but still visit home for a few days.
Her mother lacked understanding and assumed that McCarty was living a wild life of partying and drugs.
At 15, Tajuan was approached by a man in downtown Atlanta who bought her dinner and offered her kindness unlike anything she had ever seen before. McCarty opened up to him about all the things that she had been through, and he offered her a place to live.
McCarty realized what this man expected from her but saw it as a better reality than being cold and hungry. McCarty was sex trafficked for almost 20 years—even developing am on-and-off drug addiction.
McCarty left her pimp in 1997, but she found herself believing the lie that a better life didn’t exist for her. She got a job as a waitress and went to school to attain a degree in social work.
In 2009, McCarty spent time in jail for drugs and met a friend who shared with her that God is loving and desired a relationship with her.
The Start to Stop Sex Trafficking
McCarty graduated in 2010 and created a 24/7 WellHouse hotline for women to call if they were in a situation similar to hers. Through her church and Facebook, she raised the money to establish a hotline with a non-profit status.
“Tajuan wanted to come back to Birmingham,” Maryhelen Kirkpatrick, development officer of the WellHouse, said. “She was trafficked in 48 different states but mostly in Birmingham. She always says this is her home.”
McCarty was anonymously given a run-down home that someone had inherited through a family death and began the work to renovate the home. She decided to call it The WellHouse.
“She would post on Facebook that she needed a new roof, and then people would be out there by the dozens working on the roof,” Kirkpatrick recalled.
McCarty was surrounded by supporters who believed in her and believed that she could accomplish big things for the city of Birmingham and for the Southeast.
In 2011, McCarty received the first phone call on her hotline. The girl told her she was going to die. Within a few hours, McCarty stood at a Greyhound bus station in Birmingham, holding the weeping girl.
McCarty said she knew that the things that had happened to her—exploitation, abuse, drugs—gave her a story she can share to help others caught in it.
Recently, the WellHouse has pushed to get more people in the community involved. On Monday afternoons, volunteers from all over the state gather at local hotels to pray for women who might be caught in terrifying situations.
“The experience on Monday afternoons opened my eyes to things that happen in my own city,” Jennifer Holmes, a WellHouse prayer volunteer, said.
The volunteers have created more awareness and brought in more donations than ever before.
“Nothing made sense until now,” McCarty said, tears filling her eyes.
While there are a lot of ministries similar to The WellHouse, the organization prides themselves on being intentional with each survivor who comes through.
“It has to be their choice,” Kirkpatrick said. “They have to want a better life for themselves more than we want it for them.”
The survivors can come to The WellHouse when they are 18 years old, and there is a process that the women complete. The WellHouse started as just one little house that could hold about nine girls at a time. With the addition of a new property in 2017, they can now house 24 girls and women.
The process starts with a call to their rescue line. The number is located on Facebook, in hotel lobbies, truck stop bathrooms, and given to prison and jail chaplains and workers. When a girl calls the hotline, the WellHouse rescue team immediately seeks to find them and help them.
Once they are rescued, the victims are taken to The Immediate Shelter. The Immediate Shelter is a 90-day process that meets their immediate and basic needs. They are provided with clothing, shoes, medical care and a psycho-social evaluation by a social services worker who volunteers with The WellHouse.
“A lot of these women come to us without so much as a birth certificate,” Susie Gunter, a WellHouse volunteer, said. “We try to offer as much as we can to restore these precious things that have been taken from them.”
Nurse practitioners, doctors, and nurses from all over the Southeast offer to come in to help and provide their services to these women who have been broken for so long.
“Recently, we have had local tattoo artists offer to help these women,” Kirkpatrick said. “A lot of these girls have tattoos on them of their pimp’s name or brands on their neck and down their arms.”
One woman was even forced to have “sexy bitch” tattooed down her arms and legs in her pimp’s effort to discourage her from trying to run away and get a job elsewhere. These tattoo artists work to create a design that restores their dignity and that they can see as beautiful.
After 90 days, the rescued women can continue healing in a long-term program called Next Steps to Freedom. This process is about evaluating what they want to achieve with their freedom and independence. This process offers life skills classes, trauma focused counseling, substance abuse counseling, job skills training, education opportunities and spiritual growth.
“Jefferson State Community College has started working with our girls and offering the opportunity for them to take classes and obtain a degree or learn a trade like welding,” Kirkpatrick said.
Finally, the WellHouse residents have two options to complete the process. If they are employed, their Social Services Supervisor can recommend that they enter into a brand new Transitional Living Center and continue to receive counseling and guidance.
Their other option is to graduate from the program and complete the next steps of their process. This can range from being reunited with family, attending college or joining the military.
The WellHouse continues to rescue women out of darkness but would not be as successful as it is today without those who have offered their time, services and money to build a bridge of hope in the Southeast.