She goes by the name Penelope.
She was a prostitute in Wichita.
It wasn’t street-corner prostitution. She placed ads online. Clients responded. She’d go to their houses. She’d get paid.
Sometimes it was with drugs instead of money.
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Cocaine. But she wasn’t picky.
Penelope is 28. She has raven hair, tattoos and a mission.
She’s been clean for five years and wants to help other women like her. They could be other prostitutes. They could be strippers.
So she started The Butterfly Group, a support group that meets once a week. The name pays homage to a former community support group in Wichita, Project Butterfly, that ended in 2014.
How does a young woman from a small Kansas town come to this? And where does she go from here?
‘Someone else’s terms’
Penelope is an oldest child. She grew up in a small town about an hour’s drive from Wichita. She had a 4.0 GPA. She volunteered with kids.
“I did not make any mistakes,” she said. “There was not room for mistakes when I was young. My parents spanked me three times and that was enough. The fear of God was in me, and they didn’t have to tell me twice.”
When she was 13, her best friend was killed by a drunken driver. She vowed to never drink.
But as she got older and started going to McPherson College, things started to fall apart.
Her parents divorced, and she had to take more responsibility for her younger siblings.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “It pulled the rug out from underneath me, and I didn’t know how to behave on my own. ... I sometimes think that if I had had a little bit more room to mess things up in a safe environment – broke the rules or got bad grades or anything.”
She had a boyfriend six years older whom she desperately wanted to impress. She started drinking with him.
“I could never understand the point of just having a couple of drinks. No, we’re getting messed up. Why would we drink and not take it all the way to the end? That’s the alcoholic in me.”
She transferred from McPherson to Wichita State University but stayed only a semester. After a knee surgery, she became addicted to painkillers. Then other drugs, such as cocaine.
Her boyfriend had become abusive. They started going to sex clubs and doing more drugs.
“I tried to be whatever he wanted,” she said. “It wasn’t a far step to have sex for money.”
She got a job at a hotel, where she worked for about six months. Over time, her boss started pressuring her to have sex to keep her job.
She did. Then she quit. But she needed money.
So she decided to do it on her own terms.
That night, she put her first ad online.
‘Cute girl looking for help’
Her ads were not overt.
“It was like a secret code: ‘Really cute girl looking for help.’ And everybody knew what that meant.
“Guys would show up and e-mail me and be like, ‘Hey, I can help you this much if you’ll do this for me.’ That’s pretty much how it worked.”
Penelope didn’t know what to expect that first time.
“I was really worried I was going to do it and not get paid,” she said. “That was a real fear I had, and I know that’s messed up. I also worried I was going to have to convince him to wear protection. Neither of those things ended up being an issue that first time.”
The man, who was in his 50s, asked her whether she had done this before.
“He said, ‘Well, not all guys are going to be as nice as me. You need to be really careful.’
“I went and got high right afterwards. I think I just took pills. I don’t remember. Took a bunch of pills and got drunk. I had more money. I was pretty happy to have more money.”
He paid her $50.
“The first time wasn’t difficult,” she said. “The first time it was very black and white. This is what you’re doing.”
But things became more difficult over time.
“Everywhere I go in this town is bad memories,” she said. “Houses, apartments, hotel rooms. I’m always fearful of seeing someone.”
Eventually, the drugs stopped working.
“There wasn’t enough drugs to make you not feel,” she said.
“Three months before I quit, I remember looking into the mirror and saying out loud to myself: ‘You have sold all of your soul and there is no way to get it back.’ That’s what it felt like. That I had given everything I had away. And there was no amount of anything that was going to redeem me or make it so that I could live with myself.”
But then she met someone.
‘For a reason’
She met him at a QuikTrip store. He became her boyfriend. He didn’t know what she did for a living until one night he saw her checking her messages.
Eventually, she told him: “I do bad things for money.”
“When I met him, I had pushed all of my family and friends away,” she said. “I didn’t have anybody. There was no one to even offer me help anymore because I wouldn’t talk to anybody. ... When he found out, he didn’t abandon me. He didn’t leave. He just said, ‘You’re never going to do that again.’ He said, ‘You’re going to get a job tomorrow, you’re going to get off drugs.’ He stayed with me through so many things.”
She’s been sober since Aug. 18, 2011.
They were together for four years throughout her recovery, but then split up.
“Once again I found myself in a place in my life where I was totally alone. And not because I was alone. I’m not,” she said. “There are lots of girls like me.”
She had been clean and sober for four years. But she wanted to kill herself.
“I got all these things back and I still felt miserable. And four years in sobriety is plenty of time to find someone else that’s like you. That’s what they suggest you do. You find someone else who has the same kind of crap that you do, and then you work with them to get better.”
Penelope looked for a community support group, but the Project Butterfly that used to be run by the YWCA Wichita Women’s Crisis Center disbanded in 2014 because of low attendance. Now, Project Butterfly services that are offered include a weekly jail support group and one-on-one advocacy sessions, said Angela Lampe, executive director of the Wichita Family Crisis Center, the YWCA’s group’s new name.
Penelope needed to find people like her. To tell her story. To listen to their stories. To know that she has value.
“My therapist said to me that every time you reach your hand out and help one of those girls, you are getting rid of one of those faces. I’ve got a lot of work left to do. ... I believe in a higher power – and it has restored me to sanity and given me a lot of those things back that I did not think I could get back.”
‘Girls like me’
Only in the past few months has her family learned about her time as a prostitute. She waited to tell them because she didn’t want to hurt them.
In September, Penelope told her story through slam poetry at Recovery Idol, an event sponsored by the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas and CrossOver Recovery Center.
Dressed in black and purple and wearing a mask, Penelope the Super Hero took the stage. She won the contest.
Liz McGinness, board member of the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas and retired school psychologist, saw her perform.
“I was impressed with her energy and message,” McGinness said. “What she’s doing is very powerful. It touches on the loneliness and isolation of people in situations that most of society would never approve of. To forget these are human beings is the easy thing to do.”
McGinness agreed to help Penelope tell people in the recovery community about The Butterfly Group.
“One of the things learned through recovery and addiction work is that having someone else who shares your weakness becomes a very strong connection, and through the weakness, healing can begin,” McGinness said.
“What she’s doing is so vital – she is forming a very unique niche group for someone to walk into a room where people are among their own kind.”
Once a week, the women in the Butterfly Group meet. Penelope talks to them about her life. They talk about their lives.
“Girls like me are not alone,” she said. “Recovery is possible even if it feels like you can’t even live until tomorrow. ... Girls like me can have so much strength. To girls who are still stuck in it right now, you’ve got to make some changes. The first changes I had to make were I had to stop using drugs, I had to stop drinking, and I had to get a real job.
“Then to girls like me today, I tell them to go help someone else, because that is the only thing that has saved me: getting out there and being vulnerable enough to save somebody else.”
The Butterfly Group