Lisa Williams remembers the first girl who walked through the door of this house, nestled snugly in the hills of a sleepy Georgia town. The 13 year-old, handcuffed and wearing leg shackles, had been arrested for child prostitution. Young, bound, and helpless, the “baby,” as Williams calls her, was a painfully real example of something that, until that moment, she had only read about.
Years earlier, in 2004, Williams had read about two other girls just like this one in an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Selling Atlanta’s Children” profiled the commercial sexual exploitation of two sisters – one ten and one eleven years of age. Both the article and photo still haunt Williams today. “There was a photo of the girl from the knees down; she was in orange flip-flops and shackles—a ten year-old girl. She was waiting to go before the judge. Her eleven year-old sister was scheduled to go before the judge next.”
More disturbing than the picture was what brought the girls before the judge in the first place: they had been arrested and were being prosecuted for prostitution. But the men who had victimized them – the pimps who had sold them and the men who had bought them – were not mentioned anywhere in the article. The thought of the children being victimized and subsequently criminalized was more than Williams could bear. “I thought, ‘someone was selling her and someone was buying her, and now she’s shackled.’ Nowhere in the article did it say the pimp was charged.”
Lisa Williams with Former Ambassador Andrew Young in his Downtown Atlanta office discussing Living Water for Girls.
Outraged, Williams contacted the office of then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin to see what she could do. Afterward, she got on the phone to mobilize what she calls her “circle of influence.” She asked her contacts to fly into Atlanta and “bring their purses.” Friends flew in from seven states, eager to hear what had so deeply disturbed their friend on such a personal, moral, and emotional level. They gathered at an Atlanta venue where Williams told them about the article and appealed to them to take action to bring awareness to and work to stop the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). “I said, ‘if you’re not outraged, you can leave now. Go back to your communities and find out where the problem is. I’ll handle it here.’”
Lisa began to research CSEC and in 2006, founded Living Water for Girls (LWG), an organization which is dedicated to the mental, emotional, and spiritual rehabilitation of girls between the ages of 12 and 17 who have been rescued from the commercial sex trade.
Living Water for Girls’ gathering room. This is where girls gather to talk about their day and where they greet visitors.
Now, four years and more than a quarter of a million dollars in donations later, LWG operates on a seven-acre wooded compound, a haven for those girls. After they are found – most often, only after being arrested for prostitution – Lisa and her team of counselors rescue and bring them here.
When I met Lisa on a cold, sunny day in December, she recalled her first baby’s reaction the day she arrived at the LWG refuge. “She was facing the wall as the officer patted her down. I heard the sound of heavy chains hitting the floor. Finally, she turns around and she’s smiling. I ask why she’s smiling. She says, ‘It’s so beautiful here.’”
Here, in this house on the hill, under the watchful eye of loving clinical social workers, counselors, and Williams herself, the girls, who she calls her “babies,” diligently, patiently work to exchange the shattered pieces of their childhood for something of beauty. Beauty that eventually, hopefully, will outshine the horrors of the lives they left behind.