Leroy Lamar & Serenity's Steps

When Leroy was nominated Leah said, "Leroy doesn't just see trafficking victims as victims in need of help, but as friends in need of community. In all my work with the trafficking issue in Atlanta I have never met anyone who treats survivors as equals as well as Leroy does." That was a big statement, and it rang true when I met Leroy.

He treats people – that others would often discount and disregard as a lost cause – as his family. He admits where he has had stereotypes in the past, and he has had a change of heart through his willingness to be a friend to people in his community. Leroy is an inspiration, because he extends grace instead of judgment. He offers friendship and family with no strings attached, and he lives his life with dignity and respect for others.

Be inspired as you read how his desire to play a role in his community led to the start of Serenity's Steps and That Grace Restored. Then see ways that you can take action and make an impact in lives in Atlanta.

How long have you lived in Atlanta?

I’ve lived here my entire life. 

How did Serenity’s Steps grow from backyard conversations to what you’re doing now?

I was born and raised in Atlanta. So when I finished graduate school in Charlotte, we were thinking about moving home and where we wanted to be and what we wanted to do. We wanted to be near the West End area, because I was thinking about starting an organization to the students in the AU Center and wanted to be close to them. We had friends that lived in the Capitol View neighborhood, and in our conversations with them they suggested that we come over and look at the neighborhood. We spent some time going back and forth to my parent’s house to their neighborhood spending time with them. We realized that we’ve been spending a lot of time down here and probably do need to look into buying. And, we did.

We bought a house that was six houses up from them. There was another couple next to them that we started getting to know. Then there was another couple across the street that we started getting to know. So we started to have a really close community there. When we moved in, it got to be much closer.  In fact, we started having dinner together five or six nights a week. It was really easy, though. It wasn’t forced. It was organic.

All the guys had these weird jobs. One was a musician. One was a graphic artist and freelance photographer. I taught school and worked at Starbucks. We all had these weird jobs and weird schedules. So the guys would get together every morning and have coffee on the front porch. Then we’d have dinner together every night. It was pretty cool.

Before getting to know them, we didn’t know how they got to where they were. But after spending a lot of time hearing their stories, our hearts were broken and changed.

Out of those conversations came this idea of community and larger community. And where’s our place in this community? We had been getting together over meals. So when our friends Peter and Jessica moved to another street that was pretty rough, Petermet a guy at his job who would take hotdogs out to the homeless in tent city and pray with them. So they called it prayer and hotdogs. Peter said, maybe we can do the same thing on our street corner.

So we got a camping grill and a card table and started grilling out on Sunday nights. Invited the whole community out to it and started having these conversations. We also had in our minds a stereotype of the women that were working. We had met them during our prayer and hotdog time. Before getting to know them, we didn’t know how they got to where they were. But after spending a lot of time hearing their stories, our hearts were broken and changed.

During spending time with them, asking questions, getting to know them, building relationships – is where Serenity’s Steps was born. It was out of trying to be a good friend, be a good neighbor to the women there. Hearing what they had to say about what their needs where and then trying to figure out how we could come together to meet those needs.  

How did you initially approach the subject of prostitution with these women?

Most of the women that I’ve met have come from referrals from other women. Most of the time it’s somebody that I’ve been referred to or 2 or 3 of us go together or she calls me and says my friend told me to call you because you can help me. Part of the conversation is a very dignifying one where we don’t talk about what she does but talk about who she is. So I spend a lot of time asking her where she’s from, what does she like, what are her dreams – questions she probably can’t answer at the time. But it’s probably refreshing for somebody to ask you those.

Part of the conversation is a very dignifying one where we don’t talk about what she does but talk about who she is.

And we still eat.  That’s one of the main things I try to do. Let’s get together for coffee or lunch or breakfast and do this around a meal. That’s kind of important to us and that’s what we do in the South. Near the end of the conversation, I say tell me what’s going on. Normally she’ll tell me what’s been going on, and I say that’s ok. That’s fine. Let’s talk about where you want to be.  

I know you’ve mentioned different jobs and roles you were in. Are you full-time with Serenity’s Steps now?

Yes, I am. At the time, I was working for Starbucks. I was teaching for Norcross Christian Learning Center, and I was still in school at Georgia State. I let all of those go. I didn’t finish at Georgia State. I stopped working at Starbucks. I quit my teaching job to do this full-time.

At what point did you realize this isn’t just prayer and hotdogs anymore but it’s something that I need to make my life’s work?

It was actually a friend of ours who became one of our first board members who sat down with my wife, Janelle, and I and said we probably needed to do a non-profit. That wasn’t our original goal. We didn’t want to do that to be honest. I wanted to finish school and move that route. But it started to be a lot. We started having a lot of women come by and call. My wife just had twins, and it was a lot going on. He was very concerned. He came over and said either you’re going to go full-time and make this a non-profit, or you need to back down. Because you’re doing a lot.

We didn’t know anything about starting a non-profit, so he sent me to a weekend retreat on learning about business and social enterprise. Because some of the ideas I had revolved around social enterprise. So he sent me to a weekend retreat, and once I left there I had become convinced that we needed to put all of our eggs in this one basket and run with it. I worked for a little bit longer, so we could have some money for a few months of operating. Then we dove right into it.  

What you’re doing with these women one by one is incredible. But how do you keep from getting overwhelmed knowing that there are so many women in Atlanta that need the types of services and help that you’re providing? 

It gets very overwhelming for us. We have about 41 people we are in relationship with. That’s women, men, transgender, pimps, working girls, girls no longer working. It’s 41 people in Serenity’s Steps. In That Grace Restored, our paid vocational development program, we have 3 women.

I try to have intentional relationships with the 41 folks in Serenity’s Steps which is very overwhelming. Since we want to have real family, supportive friendships and relationships, not just “hey, let’s check in.” We really want you to consider us family. That’s the level of intimacy that we try to have with the folks in our lives. So that is tough. The way that we have tried to come around that is to try and figure out ways to replicate ourselves, so more one for one folks.

We’re writing a curriculum with a group in Orlando called Polis. They have a curriculum called Dignity Serves. So we’re working on retooling it and creating one called Dignity Serves Her. The main focus of Dignity Serves is how to live in dignified, interdependent relationships. So our goal is what does that look like with sex workers? How do you have dignified, interdependent relationships with sex workers? Kind of just take what Janelle and I have learned over the past 8 or 9 years and show other folks how to do that. And have Serenity’s Steps as a support base to support those people as they seek to build relationships like these. Also, equip churches and other organizations who want to have a different model for relationship building with this community. That’s one of the main things that we’re working on, and we’re hoping to have that fleshed out by the middle of next year. 

Have you seen a lot of visible change in the relationships built through Serenity’s Steps and even in your neighborhood of Capitol View over the past 9 years? How has that impacted you?

There’s a lot of change in our community in general. There’s a lot of new people moving in. Our neighborhood is changing. There’s some natural change that’s taken place. We’ve also seen women who used to work on the streets no longer on the streets. They have better lives and are doing well. They’re still in our lives, still in our community, still in our family as we say.

I want our lives to be enhanced by being in your presence. You are a person. You have dignity. You have something to offer. You have something to bring, and I value that.

For us what’s really big is not just that they’re lives change, but that our lives changes too. We really do work hard to build that family/friendship two-way relationship. I want our lives to be enhanced by being in your presence. You are a person. You have dignity. You have something to offer. You have something to bring, and I value that.

We look for ways to allow the value that you have in you to be expressed in our lives and in our family. That was another reason that we chose the kind of social enterprise that we did, because it gives the women the opportunity to bring something of value to what we do, to our organization. So our success really does depend on you as well. That’s important for us. So we’re all changed in the way that we interact.  

I bet it has a big impact on them too. Someone entrusting something to them helps bolster that confidence that people haven’t expected of them. 

When we first started, the first lady that stayed with us when we were doing this in the neighborhood and she was ready to get out – It took us a while, but eventually we gave her a set of keys to our house. Just that alone, entrusting her. That was a big step. I remember one night, she didn’t come home. I got really worried. "Where is she? What is going on?”

I went out to go look for her, and I saw her. She was walking up and down the street. I got out of the car and asked what are you doing? She said, "I dropped my keys. I’m not coming home without my keys.” Eventually, we found them.

Those keys were super precious. She went to bed and held those keys. She slept with those keys. To entrust her with something that was meaningful to us helped her to recognize and see something of value in herself. So the women that work with us all have keys to the office. They know it’s their place. That’s really important to them.

For people who think – prostitution is a choice, or it’s their fault or they can get out when they want to. What advice or wisdom do you have to share with people to help shift that mindset?

My opinion on this is really nuanced. It comes from spending a lot of time with people. I make the distinction between sex workers and the exploited. In some circles, people don’t want you to call them sex workers. They only want you to call them exploited. But then some of the sex workers get upset and say that we’re not all exploited. So just having a lot of relationships all over the industry. I have relationships with male porn stars, female porn stars, dancers – the whole nine. All of these relationships are very important to me. In these conversations, some of the things we’ve talked about is the role that exploitation plays. Most of the women and the men that we work with got started in this when they were really, really young. There’s a history of sexual abuse, sever family dysfunction, a lot of trauma, and these kids were forced to make decisions that their minds were not capable of handling and making. Those folks, which make up the majority of the people we work with, were definitely exploited. And I have no  problem putting those folks in that category. It was not a choice in the sense of what we think of as being able to make clear, moral choices. The disposition towards survival and making some of those choices weren’t real options for those folks. Then they grew up having a way of life and having a paradigm and a philosophy that is very difficult to change and see past. To move from that to a normal, healthy way of thinking about one’s self and relationships is very difficult. That’s where my heart was changed. The compassion that I grew when I learned.

But there are also the women that have made the choice to go into sex work for whatever reason. Some of them still felt like their backs were up against the wall. Some of them thought it was really good money. Why would I do this when I can do this and get all my bills paid? Just having a different view of the role that sex plays in our lives. Not seeing how important and how shaping it is until the damage has already been done. In those cases, there is a choice. But there is still also a need for support and relationships and people who are willing to walk with them through some of the thinking and why they do think the way they do. Even once you start to unearth those lies, you find brokenness and other things that you can see formed their choices in regards to entering into that world. 

Can you share how That Grace Restored came to life?

That Grace Restored is the main thrust of what we’re doing right now. It’s the thing I’m most excited about right now. When we were trying to figure out the needs of the women, at the time there were two really big needs that we were trying to wrap our minds around. We were trying to choose one, and I was having a very difficult time making a choice.

The first was transitional housing. So when a lady was ready to leave the streets to the time that she could get into a program, often times it was a long, long process. It could be months. So we had ladies stay with us two months, three months until she was able to get into a program. We were doing a lot of safe housing, assessment center type work. Helping ladies get IDs, going to clinics, getting all the documentation to enter into a longterm program, finding out which program would be good for them. Just walking with them until they were able to get into that program. So that was one big issue that we were trying to wrap our minds around.

The other was jobs. We would have ladies make it through some programs, and then end up in jobs that weren’t able to meet the needs that they had coming out of the program. Some of them had legal fees. Some of them had kids. There were so many things that the job at McDonald’s just wasn’t cutting it. Also, they would go work at McDonald’s, but they didn’t have the habits and job skills that were necessary to maintain employment. So they would get fired. They’d quit after a couple days. I was like, “What are you doing? We worked really hard to get you this job.” Their thing would be – I'm just not cut out for this kind of work. I’m only made for one kind of work. It was during those conversations and seeing that more safe housing was starting to come online. Groups like Out of Darkness and some other groups started to do safe housing – Atlanta MissionBeLoved Atlanta. There were a number of safe housing, short-term and longterm programs that were coming online.  So the need for us to do that wasn’t as great. When a woman came, at most she’d have to stay 2 or 3 days before we could get her somewhere.

But the job thing never went away. That issue never went away. Again, we never wanted to start anything. I was like, we can just shut this down and go back to doing what we were doing. But I started reaching out to organizations for jobs to see if there was job training programs available. There were some, but there were some challenges with them that our ladies had. One was they wanted you to go through this program, but they wouldn’t pay you. So you’d go to class all day, but you still had to figure out a way to make money to cover the stuff that you had going on. So some of them would end up prostituting at night and going through the program during the day, but you can only maintain that for so long. Because you’re tired and just not giving your best at work. It wasn’t a good fit for all of our ladies. 

The second problem was they’d go through the programs but wouldn’t be able to get jobs. Some of the programs didn’t already have jobs lined up for the ladies. So they’d go through a CNA program, for example, and still not be able to get a job. That was just more and more lies than even in the beginning. Because you take all these classes. You’re passing. You’re doing well. You learn all these skills. And it’s huge letdown in the end. Then you find yourself back doing what you were doing.

We wanted to try and do something that was different that addressed those needs. So That Grace Restored was born as a paid, vocational development program. We went to look at a couple other programs in the country that are doing similar work. We went to Thistle Farms. We went to Homeboy Industries in LA. Spent some time just looking at how their social enterprise models worked and seeing if there was a way to come home and bring that. 

In my mind That Grace Restored didn’t really start until we got one of the women to be on the founding team. At that point, it was just Janelle and I and a staff member. But once we asked her to come onboard and bring her input, then it really became that this was our business and our program. So let’s figure out how to make this thing work. We officially started in October 2013. We just started our actual development program in the beginning of the year. They have soft skill training on Tuesdays, counseling on Wednesdays and small group and life skills on Thursdays. 

How did the name Serenity’s Steps come to be?

Both Serenity’s Steps and That Grace Restored are both names that my wife, Janelle, came up with. When we were trying to figure out a name for the larger non-profit, what we tried to do in spending time with the ladies was to fill in the gaps in services. The idea was that there was a certain path that they wanted to be on, but certain steps were missing. We would fill in those steps where we could. The end of the path was the whole serene life. So these are Serenity’s Steps. These are the steps that one needs to take to get to the serene life. Not that we provide all of them, but we try to jump in there and provide the ones where we can.

Then she came up with That Grace Restored, which is – I am the thing that grace has restored. So the ladies’ life is that grace restored. She is what grace has restored. 

What would you say is your greatest need right now?

Like every non-profit our biggest need is funding. But aside from that, we do have some volunteer needs. We’re always looking for business mentors to come in walk beside the ladies. Each lady does a Myers-Briggs profile when she comes in to the program, and we try to tailor her job at That Grace Restored to her profile. So we’re also looking for mentors that can come alongside her in a business capacity. One reason is because we want her to be able to graduate from the program with several letters of recommendations, a nice resume and several letters from our staff. We’re always looking for more people to come in and mentor.

Right now we’re looking for facilitators for our development program. Currently, we have two that teach classes. But we also want more exposure. We want more professional women to be seen in our ladies lives to build those relationships and rapport with. That’s always a big need. 

Personally, I need someone to come in and help with the admin stuff that I have going on in the office. Those are some of the big needs that we have right now. 

If you could challenge the citizens of Atlanta to help sex workers or the exploited or their literal neighbor in need, what would you say?

My challenge would be – don’t be scared. Fear drives us a lot. Even if it’s our neighbor that we don’t know, there’s a fear of going over and getting involved. There’s a fear of getting to know this person.

Don’t be scared. Fear drives us a lot...
But what can be gained in terms of relationships far outweighs the fear.

There’s even a greater fear of working with sex workers and the exploited, because of the danger or whatever that can come around it. Especially when you’re a first responder, as it were, when you’re living in that neighborhood and you’re surrounded by that stuff. There is a sense of fear that is there. But what can be gained in terms of relationships far outweighs the fear.

I also think that a challenge would be – don’t go into this with the idea of changing someone. Again, I have been changed deeply by the relationships that I’ve had. I would say in some senses I have been changed more than they have. If we go in with the idea that it’s my job to change them and to fix them, we miss what can naturally grow in relationship. If you want to start a program that’s one thing, but if you just want to say what is the biggest need that this community has – they need friends. They need friends and family that has been lost to them because of the struggles of their lives. Just coming in and being that person, don’t be afraid to take that step.

Anything else you’d like to share? 

One of the easiest ways to get involved with us is through Stitched. Stitched is the best metaphor of what we do and gives people a chance to be a part of our story. Stitched is our collaborative journal making class. We offer one on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of every month. It’s a one for one model. You pay to come to the class and make two journals – one that you keep and one that you give back to us that goes into our stock to sell on our Etsy store. All the components of that journal were put together by the women in our program. So the journal that you hold is actually a collaboration between you and her. I think that it is one of the best ways to learn more about what we’re doing and to meet other people doing the same thing and building community with like-minded folks. It’s also a way to collaborate with the women on their success and help empower them. 

As told to Kristen Green on August 26, 2015.

Kristen Green Consulting is the digital consultant for Atlanta creatives. Kristen helps cultivate ideas into a meaningful business through workshops, consulting and 1-on-1 coaching.