It was an image that Lisa Williams couldn't comprehend.
She read through the newspaper article. Nowhere did it mention the pimp who had sold this girl or the men who had bought her -- they weren't being charged. Williams stared at the child's photo in horror.
"It's as if [the law] was saying she woke up that morning and decided she wanted to be sold to 10 to 15 men," Williams said. "That just didn't make sense to me."
So, Williams got on the phone. She called friends in seven states and asked them to take out their checkbooks. To start, they sent money to a small safe house mentioned in the article. But the safe house could only take in so many children, and Williams realized she needed to do more.
"It was my God nudging me, saying 'What part of six beds east of the Mississippi did you not hear?'" Williams said. "That clearly was not enough."
Research on the number of children being prostituted in the United States is lacking, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ estimates that 293,000 American youth are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. The majority who are "at risk" are runaways or have been abandoned by their families. According to a study funded by the DOJ in 2001, approximately 55% of girls living on the street engage in formal prostitution.
As Williams looked at that photo in the newspaper, her blood boiled. But what she couldn't see in that moment was something her husband and friends recognized instantly. Williams wasn't just fighting for that 10-year-old, or the hundreds of thousands like her.
Williams was fighting for herself, for the girl she used to be.
Nothing left to lose
At 7 years old, Lisa knew she was dying. Her whole body hurt. The blood kept coming.
Lisa was scared to die, but if her time had come she would accept it. She had just one thing to do first. She rose from the bathroom floor and crept upstairs. She knelt beside her grandfather, who was resting on the living room couch.
Quickly, in one breath, Lisa tattled on an older relative. She told her grandfather that this man stood in her doorway at night and called to her. She said he shoved things inside her in his room in the basement. She said he threatened her to keep her mouth shut. And she had, for months.
But now Lisa had nothing left to lose. She had to tell someone to save her sisters. They were toddlers and slept in her bed. They wouldn't be able to protect themselves when she was gone.
Her grandfather slowly opened his eyes, walked to his gun cabinet and took out his .22. Then he gave the man 30 minutes to get out of the house.
That night, Lisa didn't die.
Living Water for Girls
In August 2008, Williams' nonprofit organization Circle of Friends purchased a three-story house on seven acres in Georgia. Less than two years later, Williams welcomed the first child through the doors of Living Water for Girls. The safe house provides a refuge from "the lifestyle," as Williams calls it, for up to 10 formerly prostituted girls at a time.
A wooden porch guides visitors to a handpainted sign at the front door: "Girls Only." The quiet of the neighborhood is almost unsettling to those used to noisy downtown streets and glaring gas station lights.
Inside, the serendipitous feeling is soothing. The Quest Room, where the staff greet visitors, has a stone fireplace and plush couches. The kitchen, with its sleek countertops and black saddle stools, could be on the cover of a home-and-garden magazine.
On nearly every wall in the house, colorful quotations contrast with neutral tones.
"If you are confident, you are beautiful."
Williams radiates trust. Not that she gives it easily. She's a fierce protector of the girls she calls her "babies."
"Lisa has a very powerful way of connecting with people," said Amanda Terry, the administrative director for Living Water for Girls. Terry knows this firsthand -- her daughter met Williams at a restaurant and was so enamored with Williams' story that she made Terry call Living Water for Girls. At the time, Terry was living in Florida.
"I wasn't really looking for a job, I was happy at that point," Terry said with a laugh. But only a few months after she and the woman she calls "America's Mom" connected, Terry began work at the Living Water for Girls office in Peachtree City, Georgia.
Girls are referred to the program through family, friends or the courts. Living Water has cameras placed strategically throughout the house and an unlocked-door policy. Williams visits the girls two or three times a week to ask them if they're being treated correctly.
"The girls expect us to do something bad to them -- because everyone who has ever been nice [to them] has," Williams said.
That said, she doesn't baby the girls. They have a strict schedule -- up at 7 a.m. to shower, breakfast is over by 8:30 and school starts at 9 a.m.
You don't give Miss Lisa any drama, her girls say. At lunch, they tease Williams about her off-key singing -- she wakes the girls up loudly belting out the words to the gospel children's song, "This Little Light of Mine."
"We get up because it's so bad!" one house resident laughs.
The girls attend therapy sessions, take photography lessons, work out and participate in computer classes. They say "Yes ma'am" and speak up when asked a question. Then it's lights out at 9:30.
"I do expect a lot out of my girls," Williams said. "We'll walk through some things, cry through some things, run through some things but there are no shortcuts."
"She's a very loving person but she means what she says," home manager Angie Lester said. "It's called tough love and I think what I've learned by working with the girls is that this is what they've always wanted."
The girls get rewards on the weekends if they've followed the rules. They can go out, buy a new item or choose to spend quality one-on-one time with Williams. Often, they choose Williams.
"I see them sometimes regurgitate little things that she's said, (things she) taught them," Lester said. "They really hold it in their heart. They look up to her -- they see her as a confident woman, who walks with her head up, proud of who she is. You see them trying to walk in those same shoes."
'I sold myself so that I could eat'
At 11, Lisa learned she was capable of killing.
Williams says that at the time, a man in her mother's life was grooming her to be a prostitute. She says he drove around the neighborhood where they lived, saying he could sell Lisa for a couple of bucks. He brought men to the house to look at her.
One night, he found Lisa on her mother's bed, watching television. Williams remembers him bolting the doors and unbuckling his pants and preparing to rape her.
"That night I decided that I would fight. And I'm fighting a 210-pound man. I am fighting him for my life. I knew if I could get a knife -- I knew if there was anything I could get to kill him -- I would have killed him that night."
In the middle of the struggle, they heard Lisa's mother banging on the door.
Months later, Lisa intervened in a particularly bad screaming match between Lisa's mother and the man. Interrupted, the man allegedly turned his rage on Lisa.
In a rain of punches, Lisa fell down the stairs. She fled to the neighbor's house and pounded on the door. With her face three times its normal size, she asked them to call the cops.
At the hospital, Williams says, her mother refused to press charges. Instead, she packed up Lisa's stuff and dropped the 12-year-old girl off at the bus station.
Over the next six years, Lisa bounced from house to house. Occasionally she found an angel -- the wife of her mother's ex-boyfriend who took her in, the cousin who sold her own body to feed them both.
When she graduated high school, she was on her own for good.
"I had some jobs and I did some things and when I didn't have a job I sold myself so that I could eat," Lisa said. "After all, that's what I had been groomed to do. That was my value. That was my worth."
Making a choice
Williams cries with her whole heart. The sobs stem from both the unspeakable stories she carries and the joyful passion she feeds on to move forward.
There is no anger in her tears. She forgave her family after 15 years of hate and now allows neither them, nor bitterness, a place at her table.
"The life I live today is such an amazing life," Williams said slowly, trying to explain. "I know that for many, many hundreds of thousands of women who have been abused or exploited, it haunts them every day, every day of their lives. Sometimes they can never escape it. It's not that way for me. The only thing that my past serves today is for my girls to know that I understand them."
Not everyone can do the work she does. Terry sees a lot of candidates for jobs at Living Water for Girls who say "Oh, I just want these girls to know how much they're loved. I want to hug them." But when those candidates encounter the profanity, the name-calling and the deep-seated anger at the house, they simply can't handle it.
"Miss Lisa has the stamina, the endurance for doing this kind of work," Terry said. "I think being a survivor lends itself to the fact that she does have the love and compassion that, of course, these girls need. But she's also able to relate to their fears, to their distrust, to their honesty and their dishonesty."
Williams doesn't tell her babies her whole story. She simply lets them know that there's hope. People called her a whore once too, but she stopped answering to that name. She tells the girls that she made a choice.
She chose to finish college while living out of her car, working two full-time jobs. She chose to earn her master's degree.
She chose to ignore those telling her she was worthless and graduated in the top 10 percent of her ROTC class before being commissioned as an officer of the U.S. military. She chose to become a petroleum engineer. She chose to open a line of day care centers with her husband, which eventually brought in nearly $40,000 a month.
She chose to start Living Water for Girls, to help sexually exploited children across the U.S. start over.
"If everything that I've gone through in my life had to happen in order for us to save this baby here ... it was all worth it," Williams said.
Sometimes Williams drives 75 miles from her home south of Atlanta to the Living Water for Girls house, simply to watch the girls sleep. Seeing their limbs splayed loosely in every direction, their faces serene, reminds her why she works 80-plus hours a week.
It's the small things that revive her spirit -- receiving a $150 donation from a 92-year-old man on a fixed income, finding handwritten notes from prayer groups in her mailbox, digging in the dirt on her farm.
"When I see my girls smiling from the inside out ... I am instantly renewed and refreshed. Because it's been so long since they've smiled like that."
"I tell [God] that as long as he opens the doors, I will show up. And when we don't have money, I will still show up. And all I know is that God continues to strengthen me, and he continues to send angels into the lives of me and these girls."