"Right over here there's another strip club. I mean, there are two cops right here. We got a good location.” Melissa Holland says as she looks out the window of her office. She’s not joking either. Her office on Spokane Street near downtown Reno may not be considered prime real estate; her neighbors are businesses where sex sells. But it is exactly where she believes she needs to be. "All the stuff Nevada's typically known for, like legalized prostitution, I think that campaign has expired."
After learning how rampant is sex trafficking, Melissa and Jen Robinson co-founded Awaken, a non-profit to help girls involved in commercial sexual exploitation get out of the industry. "So, that's girls who have been in the strip clubs, escort service, brothels, street, online, legal or illegal - it doesn't matter to us." They transition women out of "the life" - as they call it. Since 2011, they have supported more than 200 women; some shockingly young.
We met one woman who just got out of the sex industry after 11 years. "I started being in the life when I was 14. I was sold by one of my foster sisters to a pimp." She worked the streets, clubs and eventually at a Las Vegas brothel where she used drugs to cope. "Cause when I first started, I had nightmares all the time. I'd sit in the bathroom for hours and cry until the next person came it." She wanted out, but didn't know how. "I can't keep doing this. I'm tired, you know?" But when she learned about the Christian organization, everything changed. Awaken counseled her, found housing and helped her finish high school. Along with instilling value in her and others, Melissa also hopes to change the sex buying culture. "When we become a place that these guys aren't going to profit off the selling of girls, then that's a win; that's a bigger win for me."
Melissa’s efforts are being applauded. She is a top five finalist in Glamour Magazine's "Women of the Year: Hometown Heroes" edition. While the recognition surprised her, she says she is grateful for the opportunity to raise awareness. "The fact that we have - an hour from us - a contest to bring in girls who are virgins and having them be judged and sold to the highest bidder - our state needs to be known for more than just that." Fueled by faith and passion, Melissa's fighting to awaken our community and make that happen.
You still have time to vote for Melissa in Glamour’s contest. The winner has the chance to be featured in the December issue. Log onto http://www.glamour.com/inspired/blogs/the-conversation/2015/09/women-of-the-year-hometown-her
Awaken will also host its 4th Annual Banquet and Silent Auction on November 14th at the Peppermill. To learn more, log onto www.awakenreno.org.