What if that prostitute were your sister?

Opinion: Columns

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By Dawn Ferencak

Sales Representative

This is part III of a series of columns by Dawn Ferencak, associate publisher of our sister publication, Austin Weekly News, which were awarded first place in the original column category in the 2014 Illinois Press Association contest. The columns first ran last August.

Truck drivers exit the I-290 expressway and pick up prostitutes at Washington and Kenton in West Garfield Park. This location is significant because it's adjacent to United for Better Living, a safe haven where many good things are happening for our youth, adults, and seniors on Chicago's West Side.

The subject of prostitution at Washington and Kenton came up at a recent West Garfield Park Community Stakeholders board meeting. It's been mentioned before, but the message never truly resonated with me until now. This time, I heard the message, the concern, from a different perspective. 

Stakeholders at the table acknowledged prostitution is a problem. It's not something they want the youth in the community to see when they walk out of their safe haven building. But they also acknowledged that with the extreme gun violence of the summer, the drug wars, the shootings, the killings — prostitution just doesn't fall high on the priority list for our overwhelmed police force. I understood. But ins ide, I was screaming. I wanted to shout, "You would care if the prostitute was your sister!"

I first heard that my sister was in the escort business about six weeks before she was found dead. I didn't believe this news when I heard it. My mother told me over the phone that Sandy was living in a hotel five days a week. The other two days of the week she would visit my parents, time spent helping around the house, grocery shopping, being a good companion, a good daughter.

In my mind, this escort story was a fantasy, another Sandy-drama, of which there had been so many over the years. But my mother insisted it was true. She assured me that this escort position was a real job, no sex was involved, and that Sandy had the final say in the men she chose to "date." Nice dinners with lonely men — that's all.

A lifetime of my sister's fantasies didn't prepare me for the reality of the circumstances surrounding her death. When I went to Kentucky to investigate, I discovered a wide range of documentation Sandy had kept on her computer. I believe she was documenting her history, her death, knowing that I would discover the truth, so I could tell her story to the world. Sandy's email trail told a shocking story of vulgarity, drug addiction, mental illness, promiscuity, sexual addiction, and prostitution. The scope of it went far beyond this recent escort story.

Sandy was a good person. She was a genius. Prior to her 10-year downfall from addiction, she was an advocate for those who suffered. She worked for a nonprofit that brought opportunities for minorities from Third World countries to start their own businesses. She loved children and loved the underserved. She married a good man, her high school sweetheart, and for some time was a devoted wife. 

Sandy passed up a full ride to college to put her husband through school. She went on to study early childhood education and planned to be a teacher someday. She was working toward a master's degree. 

When she lost her baby, she became involved in a church ministry and helped with a homeless prevention program. She volunteered at food pantries. She even took in a homeless man to give him shelter in her home. Although we had more than our share of sister-drama, I never thought Sandy was a bad person.

My sister's death has stopped me in my tracks in many ways. Walking into a police station in a strange city — Lexington, Kentucky, and saying, "My sister was that lady who was found dead at the hotel pool recently, and I'd like to talk to a detective to get closure," was something I never fathomed I would experience. My breath still catches when I recall the memory. 

Closure began for me when the detective assured me that my sister was in control of her situation. I wanted to know if Sandy was a slave in a human trafficking scandal. I wanted to know if someone was forcing her into prostitution. I was concerned that my parents might be in danger from someone seeking retaliation for a bad debt. And I wanted to know if someone had killed my sister. The detective assured me there was no debt. Sandy was her own boss. He said some addicts, sadly, will do anything, including prostitution, to feed their addiction. And so she did.

Can we make prostitutes a priority? I understand there any many issues in our West Side community of great importance. As we work to uplift our community, to make it a safe place to live, work and play, can we look at everyone we see with an open mind and an open heart? And can we take another view, perhaps a more gentle view, of the mentally ill, the addicts and the prostitutes? Aren't they all somebody's sister, brother, mother, father, or child? Aren't they all worth saving? And shouldn't they all be a high priority?

Email: dawn@austinweeklynews.com Twitter: @Dawn_Ferencak

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