Thursday, September 20, 2012

Red Balloons & Sharpies

I spent my morning outside of my normal routine today: hanging out on Division Avenue {a street in Grand Rapids traditionally known for its homeless shelters and prostitutes}, handing out red balloons and handbills.

A bit of explanation: Theresa, K3, I volunteered to man one of the five ArtPrize locations of The Manasseh Project. Each of the five stations is designed to bring awareness to one of the root causes of sexual exploitation. All together, the five different locations tell the story of "The Child" (a woman who grew up right here in Grand Rapids, named Leslie).

Our particular location was called Relational Gaps, and it spoke to the cycle of abuse leading to abuse or neglect leading to abuse. In Leslie's story, she spent her childhood hiding from her violent, alcoholic father, only to be taken advantage of by another male relative. From there she sought belonging on the streets, from her pimp, and from the men who bought her.

[The other root causes of human trafficking and exploitation include Demand, Sexual Abuse, Substance Abuse, and Poverty. Read more about them here. Spoiler alert: Leslie's story is ultimately redemptive and you can find it here.]

Heavy stuff. Not my typical morning of toddler play dates or grocery store stops.

We began the morning a bit apprehensive as we looked around at the neighborhood, the "clientele", and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. We started to read the large white wall that had been constructed. The question on it said, "What relationship are you missing that makes you feel vulnerable?" There were Sharpies hung along the wall as well, an open invitation for people to answer the question in their own handwriting, in their own words.

After a slow start, people began to stop. They wanted to talk, to engage. They wanted to know what we were doing. They wanted to know why. They wanted to be heard. They wanted to share their story. They wanted someone to listen.

In all honesty, on a normal day if I found myself walking around downtown, these are not the sort of people I would stop to talk to. Many were homeless, possessions trailing behind them in bags. Many were drunk or strung out (our station just happened to be right next to the neighborhood liquor store). Some were disabled. Most were poor, weary, dirty, and hungry.

But they were also friendly and open and willing to share. When we greeted them with a smile, gave them eye contact and our full attention, they came alive. Some told us through tears in their eyes just how missing relationships and exploitation had directly affected their lives. They looked relieved that someone was giving a name to their life experiences.

Some people walked by two, three, four times before they finally stopped and wrote something on the wall. We periodically checked the wall for new words, and those words often broke our hearts.

It was a heavy morning. A heartbreaking morning. But worthwhile and beautiful and filled to the brim at the same time. The air was chilly, but the sun was bright. And I am deeply grateful I had the opportunity to connect with others in our community and to experience a small piece of their stories.

And now, as someone entrusted with their stories, I want to do my part to help pass them along. I think more than anything, we all want to know that we are important and worth something and simply not forgotten. Human trafficking is real and it's ugly and it's right here in our city. Let's not get so busy and disconnected and distracted that we forget or simply look away.

If you're local, and you want to know more, you can check out The Manasseh Project's various locations around town as well as their main art exhibit, The Child, located near Blue Bridge & Campau. (ArtPrize Vote #52868).


  1. You know the tears I told you I was going to have to cry when I got home? Well, your words moved me to them. A brutiful tribute to the people we spoke with today.

  2. What a wonderful and moving experience...beautiful post, Katie!

  3. The first picture of all the red balloon is so beautiful and you girls totally rock. Love that you spent your morning that way!

  4. love you...proud of you...thank you...

  5. what a wonderful experience!! Love the idea of people writing on the white wall!!

  6. How fabulous!! I found your blog from the DIY Dreamer BlogLovin Blog Hop! Loving your blog!! Im your newest follower on BlogLovin!! Feel free to follow back!! Have a great weekend!

  7. This is astounding and heart-wrenching, but what a wonderful way to touch those souls gently and offer a little understanding and hope. Huge props you all. Praying for all those that need the help to find it.

  8. Oh this is such a beautiful post. I love when I hear stories of projects and people that are bold about the truth of sexual abuse and trafficking. Ugh, yes, heavy, but must be told.
    I'm headed to Guatemala next week, but if you'd ever like to write about this at mercy ink, I'd love to have you!
    blessings + thanks so much for linking up with heart+home!


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