SAGE survivors celebrate new lives, remember those who were lost

SAGE leaders (from left) Glenda Sykes, Kelly Jones, Rachael Morgan, Leeanna Majors, Tammy Gaultney, organizer Rachel Ramirez with Organizing Director Jim Field                       (Photo by Jeff Foy)

A new CCH leaders group run by prostitution survivors gathered for an evening vigil to celebrate their new lives – and to remember the women who were killed or lost to sex trafficking.

“I spent 33 years of my life on the street,” said Leeanna Majors. “I’m a survivor with SAGE (Survivor Advocacy Group Empowered). We help to empower other survivors, to let them know that their voice makes a difference.” 

More than 75 people, many of them survivors, attended a courtyard vigil Wednesday outside Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut. Women spoke of the horrors they lived through when, often because of drug addictions, they got enmeshed in a world of street prostitution, abusive pimps and homelessness.

“It took four years of literal hell to make it through to the other side,” said Kelly Jones. “I chose to finally live. I’m a survivor. I’m a leader of SAGE, and I’m four and a half months clean, everybody… God bless the ones lost and please make room for more survivors.”

Tammy Gaultney said crack addiction spiraled her into prostitution, from Michigan to California and back, leaving her “homeless for nine years since I lost my kids” to the child welfare system. She joined SAGE after finding help through special housing and support services from Cook County’s WINGS prostitution court. CCH’s Prostitution Alternatives Round Table co-led planning for the felony court, a first of its kind in the Midwest when it opened in early 2011.

“Next month I will be a year clean,” Tammy said proudly.

Advocates and service providers praised the women’s courage.

“Keep fighting for yourselves. Your lives are absolutely worth it,” said Jennifer Martin, a volunteer with Fourth Presbyterian’s Sunlight Project.

CCH leads the Springfield-based advocacy for End Demand Illinois, enacting three state laws in three years that crack down on customers and traffickers while offering new help for those who were prostituted. This spring, the new SAGE group helped advocate for a bill that tightens trafficking laws – so the group took a few minutes to remember Sylvia Naif, a survivor-leader who fought for the bill. Sylvia died in her sleep last month.

“Sylvia died a SAGE leader. She didn’t die a victim,” Leeanna said. “She said, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know my voice was so powerful.’ I remember her laughter and her passion. She didn’t want anybody else to go through what she went through.”

SAGE’s vigil was covered by media outlets MSNBC, NBC-TV, Northwestern/Medill, and StreetWise.

Working with CCH community organizer Rachel Ramirez, SAGE distributed a “Survivors Manual” that its members have written for trafficked adults. Groups participating in support of SAGE included the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Good News Partners, Haymarket Center, and Heartland Alliance.

– Anne Bowhay, Media