Ex-stripper delivers gift bags, messages of hope

JoANNE VIVIANO The Columbus Dispatch Published:

COLUMBUS (AP) -- A stripper for nearly 20 years, Lynn Stevens had had enough.

She remembered the sexual abuse she had endured as a child -- followed by unfaithful men, domestic violence, a miscarriage and suicide attempt, drug addiction and jail time.

She was tired and depressed, and she ranked her self-worth at zero. She vowed never again to touch drugs or step a stiletto heel into a strip club.

Less than three years later, Stevens was back.

This time, though, she was drug-free -- and carrying gift bags with messages of hope for others who, like her, might have had enough and need a hand to help them out the door.

Inspired by women who helped her find self-worth, regain trust and embrace Christianity, the Powell resident established We Are Cherished Ohio a year ago.

She joins other volunteers in visiting Columbus-area strip clubs monthly to deliver gift bags -- with earrings, lip gloss and hand sanitizer -- to the women who work there.

Each bag also holds a handwritten sticky note with messages such as "You are valued," ''You are loved" and "Praying for you."

A separate card lists a phone number and a link to the We Are Cherished website, assuring them that someone will hear their stories.

"God has put this big desire in my chest," said Stevens, 45. "I have to go out and love these women. I can't save them, but I can love them."

The group is an offshoot of We Are Cherished, founded in 2010 by former stripper Polly Wright and based in Southlake, Texas.

Stevens spent her dancing years in Texas, where Wright, along with other women, supported her financially, emotionally and spiritually as she redirected her life.

Speaking recently by phone, Wright called Stevens' story one of "full-circle redemption."

The central Ohio program represents the first branch, said Wright, who expects the concept to be replicated elsewhere.

"It is really overwhelming, in a beautiful way, just to watch it grow and to know that more women are getting reached," she said. "Even if you're still in the industry, ... we're going to love you right where you are."

Stevens left behind Texas for Ohio in 2012, after she married.

She had planned to attend culinary school until, one day, she missed a turn and found herself in the parking lot of a white stucco building with a blue light -- a strip club.

Really, God? she thought. You brought me here. What do you want me to do?

She spent six months in prayer, then could no longer resist what she described as a call to act.

She began researching the Columbus strip-club scene and received ministry training from We Are Cherished.

Almost a year ago, the volunteers made their first deliveries by talking their way past the bouncers in eight of the nine clubs they visited. They distributed about 200 bags.

Since then, they have visited half of the dozen or so area clubs each month -- delivering about 150 bags.

They bake brownies for the bouncers and offer gift cards for, say, Starbucks or Subway.

Stevens declined to share club names and locations with The Dispatch, saying she works to protect the dancers and businesses, but said the volunteers are welcomed.

A member of Gateway Community Church near Powell, she gathers volunteers there to stuff bags before each outing.

She plans to start a support group for women in or previously in a sex-related industry -- strippers, escorts, prostitutes, porn actresses.

During deliveries, she said, she never asks the bag recipients to quit.

"If we take away their choice, we take away love," she said, "and we're not prepared to do that."

The all-volunteer ministry, which costs about $700 a month, is funded by donations.

Stevens, a full-time volunteer, hopes eventually to offer services related to employment, finances and education; and to establish a home like the We Are Cherished house in Texas -- where, she said, she felt the presence of God the first time she entered.

"I felt like I was being hugged, and no one was touching me."

Stevens has inspired many of the volunteers she has recruited from churches.

"It's a way to give these girls hope, a way to show all of them love in the clubs -- even the men," said Denise Wright, a 46-year-old volunteer who attends Grove City Church of the Nazarene.

Gateway member Amanda Starkey, also a Powell resident, acknowledged being initially turned off when Stevens stopped at her Bible-study group.

Starkey figured that the dancers had made their choice, but Stevens helped her see another side.

The women might be hurting and searching for a place to heal.

"Once I realized that, my heart was broken," the 36-year-old said. "I realized I had to participate in some way."

Stevens doesn't deny the lucrative nature of stripping, but many women, she said, think they have no choice: They might be forced into stripping by a pimp or boyfriend, suffer substance abuse or see no way out because they have criminal records or a lack of education.

"People are so quick to dismiss a stripper," she said. "Jesus loves strippers, too. We need people willing to help these women, to give them a second chance."

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

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