Woman's Past in Prostitution Becomes the Key to Saving Other Women

shaaron funderburk off the streetsShe was a prostitute and a drug addict careening down the road to self destruction. She got clean and got off the streets, but that wasn't enough for 51-year-old mom of one daughter Shaaron Funderburk, who is now the founder and CEO of the Off the Streets Program in Gaston, North Carolina. What she's doing with her life these days is nothing short of astonishing. But how does one person change so dramatically?


We first learned about Funderburk from L'Oréal Paris' Women of Worth program, which honors 10 extraordinary women making a difference. All of this year's honorees were inspiring in their vision and commitment. But Funderburk stood out for the way she used her own personal crisis to transform the lives of so many other women.

We had the tremendous privilege of talking with Funderburk and got her incredible story of pain, loss, and redemption.

It all started with the rape of a young girl.

Ask any sex worker how she came upon her work, and the story is likely to be a sad one. Funderburk's is horrific. At the tender age of 11, she was gang raped -- repeatedly -- by the same group of boys, over an entire summer.

By the age of 13, she'd decided it was easier to just allow boys to have sex with her than to fight it. "I went from being a victim to volunteering," Funderburk says of her promiscuous past. "The shame and low self-esteem were already there. I became very angry and rebellious."

Funderburk was acting out by day, but at night she had nightmares of her sexual assaults. She started drinking and smoking pot at 18. "I could sleep and I wouldn't have the nightmares, or at least I wouldn't remember them when I woke up," she says. "It allowed me to escape." But her solution soon became the problem as her addiction grew.

As she moved on to harder stuff (crack became her drug of choice), she started selling sex to fund her habit. "I learned at an early age that's what men want," she says. "You give them what they want, you get what you want." Meanwhile she was in and out of jail, in and out of relationships. And she didn't know how to stop using drugs. 

The turning point: She wanted to matter.

Funderburk had become pregnant, and now she had a more urgent need to get clean. But that wasn't the only motivating factor that got her clean in 1994. Funderburk felt like she was hiding all the time and that it wasn't normal.

"I had a turning point," she explains. "I got tired of being a nothing and a nobody. I felt like I didn't matter. I wanted to matter. I didn't just want to be a survivor. I wanted to live."

She entered a treatment program, but what made the biggest difference was meeting her 12-step-program sponsor, another recovering drug addict named Jamie B. "She took time out to help me get my life together," Funderburk says. "She taught me how to live, how to say no when I wanted to say yes, how to fight through becoming better."

But for women like Funderburk, recovery needs to go way beyond staying off drugs. "When you get off the streets you don't know what to do," she says. "You need somebody to tell you, 'When you get up in the morning, you need to do this, this, and this.'" 

Once Funderburk was back on her feet, the first thing she wanted to do was go out and find her "partner in crime," a close friend she had met on the streets. Her search put her on the path to founding her own recovery program.

shaaron funderburk off the streets

Finding her life's purpose: "I've been there. I know the way out."

Funderburk would hit the streets with a sack lunch after work looking for her friend. She would end up giving her lunch to other women working the streets. Soon, she was bringing 10 lunches with her, handing out condoms, and talking with the women.

One chilly October day, she brought home a woman with full-blown AIDS. She fed the woman dinner (spaghetti -- she still remembers), let her take a shower, and helped her get back on her feet. The woman was the first of many. Funderburk says it was instinct that led her to help these women.

And that's how it all began. Funderburk began taking in more women, often housing up to eight women in her two-bedroom home. She eventually founded Off the Streets Program, which offers transitional housing, counseling, training, and resources for women. Funderburk estimates OTSP has helped rehabilitate over 750 women in 11 years, with an 88 percent success rate.

"A lot of the facilities have people who are educated, but not necessarily people who've been there, done that," Funderburk notes. But her personal experience gives her special insight into the kind of support former sex workers and female drug addicts need most. 

"I don't beat them down with 'you need to do this, you need to do that,'" she says. Instead, Funderburk says she asks them, "'What do you want to do with your life, and how can I help you?'"

The transformations are dramatic. One woman had been living in a trailer with no running water, forbidden from seeing her own grandson. Now, with the help of Off the Streets, she supervises the deli counter at a grocery store and hosts regular movie parties with her two grandsons. Funderburk says you'd never know what this woman had been through just looking at her now.

I asked Funderburk how it feels to help women turn around their lives this way. She was speechless for a moment, then said:

I can't explain ... I can only say some days I'm elated by their progress. It's overwhelming sometimes. It makes me cry to see girls come in lost and confused and to see them get humble enough to receive the help so they can go on to become great.

I've got some women who've gone on to supersede my life, and that's the greatest accomplishment. I tell them, 'If you supersede me, I'm going to be your biggest fan.' Some women start their own businesses, they get married, they get their kids back, they beat back the system, they get their lives back, they become conquerors.

I'm fulfilling my purpose in life.

Funderburk also revealed that she believes there are two important days in our lives: The day we are born ... and the day we find out why. Now I'm the one left speechless. How many of us can say we've found our life's purpose? Can I? As we approach the end of one year, and the beginning of a new one, I'm filled with a sense of urgency.

A generous supporter is currently matching donations to Off the Streets Program  through the end of the year. To make a tax deductible donation of any size sent to P. O Box 550547 Gastonia, NC 28055.


Do you know anyone who turned a personal crisis into a mission to help others?


Images via L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth

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