conversations on the fringe

Victimization Of Young People Who Sell Sex

New research on young people who engage in commercial sex work looks at how young people understand their own experiences and explores how they meet felt needs, such as finding a way to make money or meet essential needs in the face of limited employment opportunities, meeting familial obligations, and accessing resources for survival (such as housing), that young people are often trying to solve through selling sex. Research highlighting the voices of young people who sell sex illustrates young people’s’ concerns from their point of view. I understand why the church struggles with how to address these kinds of issues but it can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines. The church must get their hands dirty if it still desires to bring hope to vulnerable people on the margins. If it doesn’t, then it simply needs to stop adding to the problem and stay out of the way.

There is a large amount of epidemiological literature documenting higher levels of HIV prevalence and risk factors for transmission among young people who sell sex. Homelessness and involvement in street economies are frequently associated with higher levels of risk and HIV infection among young people who sell sex. Biomedical research emphasising individual behavior sometimes does not fully address the role of structural and institutional violence in the lives of young people who sell sex, nor does it explore linkages with HIV vulnerability.

The literature also shows that the ways young people sell sex can differ from older sex workers. They are often displaced to more marginalized working and living conditions than older sex workers. Exchanging sex for money, goods, or a place to stay occurs in many different types of relationship and can be a livelihood strategy for persons both over and under 18 years of age. Not all young people who sell sex, including those under 18, necessarily identify what they do as work or exploitation.

Young people express a variety of feelings and understandings about selling sex. Some young people say that selling or trading sex allowed them to meet familial responsibilities and obligations or provided them with the means to establish lives independent from their parents. For others, it helped them to meet their basic needs and find community. Some young people find selling sex harmful or violating, some felt it was degrading to them, disliked being with strangers, or disliked the stigma and unsafe conditions. Young people who have been forced or coerced to sell sex experience severe human rights violations.

Young people who sell sex should be understood within their specific social and economic contexts. There is often a mismatch between economic needs and opportunities to meet these needs in the context of severe global economic inequalities, familial disruption or abandonment, and limited access to resources. Economic hardship has been shown to be particularly profound for LGBT young people, as they experience additional stigma and high levels of discrimination from support services and in employment.

Alternative economic opportunities to selling sex for many young people, including those who are under 18, are overwhelmingly irregular, informal, and sometimes very unsafe activities that carry their own risks. These include activities such as begging, street vending, unregulated factory work, or other criminalized activities such as selling drugs. While many young people sell sex for physical and economic survival, some young people also sell sex to access an improved lifestyle beyond basic subsistence, including consumer or luxury items and aspire to express autonomy and individualism through consumer goods.

Research shows that young people who sell sex have greater vulnerability to violence, have heightened sexual risk behaviors such as lower levels of condom use, and often have a higher number of sexual partners. A number of studies show that drug use often intersects with the sale of sex, exposing young people to additional legal and health risks. Young people may experience force or coercion during their involvement in selling sex. This is of particular concern, as decreases in autonomy have been shown to increase vulnerability to HIV and other sexual and reproductive health problems. Young people may also lack adequate negotiation skills, making it more difficult for them to negotiate condom use in personal or commercial exchanges. Gendered power dynamics that compromise young women’s negotiating abilities in relation to men can further produce gendered vulnerabilities to HIV infection.

Numerous laws and policies shape young people’s’ vulnerability to HIV infection and access to healthcare and HIV services. Young people often experience compounding forms of institutional violence and exclusion that victimizes them two to three fold. Young people are made vulnerable when they cannot access support or assistance because they fear arrest, detention, discrimination, or encounter policies that deny them access to services. This, in turn, has been shown to exacerbate violence in their personal and work spheres. While support systems are supposed to help young people, they are too often set up to create harms or not meet the needs of the people they serve.

Persons under 18 who sell sex often encounter mandatory reporting legislation and policies when trying to access services, which require social service or healthcare providers to report them to police. Mandatory reporting legislation creates a disincentive for service providers to help young people, sometimes denying them services outright, and makes young people hesitant to seek support out of fear of being detained or arrested. Age of consent legislation and parental consent requirements for access to sexual health examinations, harm reduction commodities, HIV testing, and abortion services, also create barriers to accessing services, as most young people do not want to disclose their activities to their parents. In Asia and the Pacific region, adolescents aged 15–19 years are more likely than persons over 20 to have unmet needs for contraception and are more vulnerable to unplanned pregnancy. Additionally, fewer young women who sell sex have ever had an HIV test compared to their older counterparts.

Young people who sell sex are often turned away from services and do not want to seek out help because of poor treatment from service providers, often owing to stigma and discrimination based on their age and behaviors. Young people are denied assistance because of their involvement with selling sex and/or drug use, their sexual orientation or identity, gender expression, or HIV status. As one report explains, “girls are denied help from the police, hospitals, shelters, and addiction treatment programs because they are in the sex trade, because they are trans or queer, because they are young, homeless, and because they use drugs.”

Young transgender, gender non-conforming, and other LGBT people who sell sex face endemic levels of discrimination and stigma which may condition their entry into selling sex and denies them the support they need to keep themselves safe and healthy.

Young people can be criminalized and arrested under laws concerning ‘prostitution’, drug use, and homosexuality or other forms of sexual behavior. This has negative effects on the human rights of persons over and under 18 years of age. The United States does not have a provision that persons under 18 should not be criminalized and treated as victims. This leaves them vulnerable to arrest. The criminalization of sex work affects young people by reducing control over working conditions and fostering a reluctance to seek services for fear of arrest. An arrest can sometimes be used as a strategy to direct persons under 18 who sell sex into the judicial system and detain them for their own ‘protection’, such as in secure care or Safe Harbor legislation.

Similarly, laws against drug use or same-sex sexual activities can also lead to arrest. Laws prohibiting ‘prostitution’ or trafficking can also compromise young peoples’ support networks that are comprised of other people who sell sex who are both over and under 18 years of age. Young people who sell sex have extensive peer networks including individuals both above and below the age of majority and rely on peers for knowledge and support. Laws criminalizing third parties can sometimes deprive young people who sell sex from community support.

Young people who sell sex experience very high levels of violence from state authorities, including in detention, in the custody of police, as well as in healthcare settings. Studies show that significant proportions of street youth who sell sex have been arrested or have had encounters with law enforcement. Studies suggest that police harassment and abuse of young people who sell sex is systematic and widespread, and experiences of physical and sexual assault, rape, and extortion have been well-documented. This raises questions for policymakers about the appropriateness of law enforcement as the primary response to young people who sell sex, particularly as forced detention or forced rehabilitation remains a standard practice in a number of country contexts and closed environments are themselves associated with increased risk for HIV.

Young people are denied assistance because of their involvement with selling sex and/or drug use, their sexual orientation or identity, gender expression, or HIV status. The voices of young people who have formerly or currently sell sex are nearly inaudible in the literature overall. Thus, understandings about ‘commercial sexual exploitation’ in research and international law have developed without the involvement of young people with experiences of selling sex. Young people express a range of complex feelings about selling sex and voice many struggles, experiences of violence, and other difficulties, yet also express notions of resilience and resistance in the context of their lives. One 21-year-old male explained, “there [are] only two positive things that I found [from survival sex work], the fact that it helps you survive and the second thing is that I felt that it made me stronger because it’s like I’m able to go through these tough situations … It shows how much I am willing and determined to keep living and surviving.” In addressing young people and HIV/ AIDS prevention, researchers propose a holistic approach to understanding young people’s’ involvement in selling sex. This approach looks at a range of motivations, including sexual initiative owing to love or pleasure, decisions made for economic or financial reasons, concerns about basic physical and economic survival, and forced or coerced sex.

Young people’s narratives suggest that there are often many overlapping factors that shape their experiences of selling sex. Even young people in exploitative situations report complex feelings toward the person exploiting them, who may also be a source of love and support. Some young people explain that they were able to resolve situations where they experienced coercion and sometimes continued to trade sex under different conditions. Taking seriously the perspectives of young people who sell sex does not set aside moral or ethical obligations to protect vulnerable young people. However, compassionate and effective responses to young people who sell sex, including those under the age of 18, requires an understanding of their needs and motivations as well as the social and economic dynamics of their lives.


chrisChris Schaffner is a counselor and veteran youth worker. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.


Throughout my 25 years as a mother I have been blessed to have the home where kids wanted to come and to be the woman that people called Mama C. They knew that to enter my kitchen was to enter a safe place where anything could be discussed, and I would listen, reserving all of the judgement and none of the love.

In teenage years I truly became known as the home for wayward teens. There were a few years running that I always had a “stray” teen living with me. And while I loved to be the soft place to land my heart would always be broken for the reasons why.

With the one exception of a teen pregnancy, the teens that lived with me had been asked to leave home when they came out to their families. With each of them, the reasons for this forced exodus from their home was explained as religious reasons. The parents simply could not have that type of sin living underneath their roof.

Now I am a bible believing, Jesus loving woman.

But I also believe that my Jesus loved a good battle with the Pharisees. He admonished people to live the “spirit of the law” and not the “letter”. When pushed to say which of the commandments is the greatest, He answered with the famous: To love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all of your might; and to love your neighbor as yourself.

I want to ask these parents the equally famous question: Who is your neighbor?
Can you truly say you are following scripture if you do not love your neighbor? Is not your very own flesh and blood your neighbor? Did Jesus tell us to turn our backs on sinners; to condemn? Or did he not say: Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. (Luke 6:38)

I shudder to think of this- the measure you use it will be measured back to you. So let’s transpose this onto this situation. You can no longer live in my house because of your sinful nature, so I am sending you out; young, vulnerable, helpless, and afraid. And now let me pick up my rosary beads and pray. Let me walk into the confessional and get down on my knees and beg God for mercy….and let me hear him say- ah, no. Sorry. You need to leave my house. You need to get out. You are no longer welcome here. We can’t have your sin in our house. The measure you use will be measured back to you…..

What if instead these teens had been met with love? Unconditional love that only a parent can truly deliver? You are my beloved child and we are going to walk through this together. The world will hate you and berate you, and I can’t imagine what the battle has been in your heart, but I can tell you that you are safe in your home, and you have safety in my heart, and further, you are safe in God’s love…..

No, instead they came to me. Broken and rejected; homeless; vulnerable and scared. And I was not able to love them back to wholeness, not even with the ferocity and willingness of my love…

…because I was not their mom. I could offer them a safe place to be. I could help them find solutions. I could listen. I could bear witness to their journey, and certainly, I could wipe the tears, and make them a casserole. But I could not undo the rejection they had suffered. And so it goes. The very people who proclaim that their life has been found in Christ Jesus, in his death on the cross, in the very fact that He paid a price for their sins….have withheld that same love and mercy from the people that they have been charged with loving no matter what. John Paul II said famously that the family is the first church. Imagine that. Imagine the wounds we heap by the weight of that judgment.

People wonder why we need a Pride month. I have heard it all.

We have pride month because there are still people who would rather send their children out like sheep to a slaughter, rather than walk through this brave step with them. We have pride month because there are teenagers everywhere who do not have a Mama C to take them in, so instead, they become lost to the streets. We have pride month because we need to know that it is necessary to find a way to cross the church pew and to love our neighbors as ourselves. ALL of our neighbors. We have pride month because we are called by virtue of our salvation to love the spirit of the law… love. 1 John says: How great is the love the Father has lavished on us that we can be called children of God.

Love. That is why we have Pride month.

Love, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. Love more. That is why we have Pride.

*published anonymously per author’s request

I Am A Mother

I am a mother. The quality of love that I have for my children is what best helps me understand the fierce love that God has for us. Nothing can shake that determined love. I may not always agree with, or like my children’s choices, but my commitment to them is unbreakable. They are my beloved children…longed for, received into my arms, blessed on their journeys and watched over with prayers and hope. I see them through the filter of love and am bone-deep certain of their worth.

My eldest daughter loves and is married to her wife of almost 3 years and my journey of acceptance and support of their relationship was not without personal pain. Let me be clear, my love for my daughter was never in question! The pain I experienced was being plunged into the “space in between”.

By this, I mean the space between my daughter and the Christian Community that largely doesn’t feel God can bless any marriage other than that of a man and woman.

When my daughter told me about her relationship, my grief was largely due to what I knew was coming. I feared that other Christians (and some family members) would stop seeing my daughter as God’s beloved and start seeing her first through the LGBTQIA filter.  I kept their relationship a secret from all but a few trusted friends. I needed time to come to grips with it myself. Foundational to my fears was the worry that God might see my daughter the way some Christians do…as less than.

Before I faced other people’s opinions, I needed to settle my soul, so I prayed, read, talked and listened to other people, followed discussions and grappled with what I learned. I listened to both sides of the theological spectrum…those who called homosexuality sin, those who said it was not sin if it wasn’t acted on, and those who felt God created a beautifully diverse world and that gender variation were part and parcel of creation and perhaps the “sin” was in not accepting God’s creation.

I talked to an Episcopalian friend of my daughter who surprisingly led me to a Mennonite theologian’s book on sexuality. The book came at the right time and helped me put together all that I had been learning in a way that felt like a key unlocking a door to the wall between my head and heart. Simply, the author explained how our view of scripture has been altered and refreshed throughout the ages because of our unfolding understanding of science. We’ve learned that the world is not flat and that we are not the center of the universe! We’ve learned that women, men, and people of different races carry nearly the same genetic material and that there is no biblical basis for patriarchy or slavery! All are equally valuable to God…and as such, to each other. He said that he believes that God created humans in all their beautiful variations, then called them good. Period. He said that those who claim the LGBTQIA classification were called to the same standards in relationships that heterosexuals were called to. We are all called to relationships that are committed, monogamous, show mutual respect, are non-violent, caring, etc.

I’m a part of the Mennonite Church and our denomination is grappling with where they stand on LGBTQIA issues and what constitutes a faithful interpretation of the bible.

Just writing the word “issues” makes me bristle and tells me how far I have traveled on this journey.  Those who are in the LGBTQIA community may have issues as all humans do, but they are not an issue! They are God’s beloved, created by God, called good by God, and seen through that lens!

I can be patient with other Christians who are still grappling over what they think God says about human sexuality. I have no patience for those who view their fellow sisters and brothers as less than, or even primarily through the sexuality lens rather than the “beloved lens”. I believe this emphasis is sinful and runs counter to God’s intention, harming both the giver and receiver.

I spoke with a couple in Europe who has a gay son. When the mother went to her pastor for support and guidance, he basically told her that her son was not welcome in their church anymore. He said he could still attend although he should no longer serve or use his gifts in the church….and should sit in the back!

Instead of comfort and encouragement, this mother was pushed into that “in between space”….the deep valley between the son she loved and her church community. She took a 3- year detour of grief and isolation that needn’t have happened. Her son was left without a community in which he had been loved and nurtured just a short time before. The parents have since found a new community that is welcoming to all and they bear their scars well. The last I’ve heard, their son still has not found a church community.

My daughter is not in a Christian community and that is hard for me to see. She and her wife attended a small Mennonite church for a time and felt at home at first, but soon came to see that the hospitality was half-hearted at best. They have found their community with other women who play Derby and though I am glad for the friends they have there, I feel it is a pale substitute for what Christian community could and should be. It should be a diverse community that sees each other through the lens of God’s beloved-ness AND sees each other through the hope of what God is calling us to become.

If I could say one thing to the Christian community I think I would say that you need to offer God’s love to ALL, with no strings attached. Telling yourself that you love the “sinner” but not the “sin”, is the same thing as telling that young man that he is welcome at church but needs to sit in the back. God’s hospitality is wholehearted, not conditional. Half-hearted hospitality is irrelevant.

If I could say one thing to the LGBTQIA community, I think I would say that I have come to see you as God does….beloved, created in God’s image and part of his amazing creation and I yearn for the day when the chasm between the two communities disappears.

Mary Kennell lives on a family farm in Central Illinois and is married to Roger. They are proud parents of four adult children. Mary was formerly on the pastoral team at Roanoke Mennonite Church where she and Roger still attend.

HIV/AIDS and Youth At-Risk (A Harm-Reduction Approach)

This purpose of this post is to educate the public about the impact of HIV and AIDS on young people and to highlight the work young people are doing across the country to respond to the epidemic.

Today’s young people are one of the first generations to never know a world without HIV and AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four new HIV infections is among youth ages 13 to 24. Every month, 1,000 young people are infected with HIV and over 76,400 young people are currently living with HIV across the country. While there has been much talk about an AIDS-free generation, we know that this is not possible without focusing on our nation’s youth and their various intersections.


Here are some suggestions for youth that are at a high risk:


  • Get tested for HIV, alone or with your partner. To find a testing site near you call the CDC National AIDS Hotline at 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) / TTY: 1-888-232-6348 (24/7) or find the nearest testing center in your area/health department.
  • If you have HIV, start treatment as soon as possible with HIV medicines (also known as antiretroviral therapy or ART), and stay on treatment. ART can lower the level of virus in your body enough to improve your health, prolong your life, and prevent you from spreading HIV to others. For enrollment in HIV Care:
  • Get tested and treated for other STDs such as gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia, and insist that your partners do too. Being infected with other STDs makes you more likely to get HIV.
  • Choose not to have sex or choose to have sex with one partner and agree to be sexually active only with each other. Both of you should get tested for HIV, and share your test results before you decide to have sex.
  • Choose lessrisky sexual behaviors. Anal sex, especially if you are the receptive partner, is the highest-risk sexual activity for getting HIV. Vaginal sex is much less risky, and oral sex carries much less risk than anal or vaginal sex
  • Use latex male condoms or female condoms correctly every time you have anal or vaginal sex. Condoms are the only effective form of birth control that also helps reduce the risk of transmitting HIV and most other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
  • Talk to your doctor about HIV medicines to prevent HIV infection (known as PrEP) if you routinely have sex with someone who has or may have HIV.
  • See a doctor immediately if you have sex with someone who has or may have HIV if you are not already taking PrEP. Starting medicine (known as PEP) within three days after a possible exposure reduces the chance of getting HIV:
  • Limit the number of people you have sex with. The fewer partners you have, the less likely you are to have sex with someone who is infected with HIV.
  • Don’t share injection drug equipment, such as needles, syringes, works, or anything that might bring you into contact with someone else’s blood or bodily fluids.

Chris Wade, HIV Care Connect Project Coordinator

Illinois Public Health Association, HIV Care Connect

HIV Care Connect is a program of the Illinois Public Health Association and is funded by the Illinois Department of Public Health

What about the “T” in LGBTQIA+?

More and more transgender people have come out in recent years. With the popularity of the reality show “I am Jazz”, a show about the journey of a transgender adolescent trying to navigate school, dating, and gender, the public transition of Caitlyn Jenner, and the rise of the #metoo movement challenging toxic gender expressions, we appears we are in the midst of another sexual revolution.

We have also seen the rise of what our transgender brothers and sisters have been saying for decades, which is discrimination, dehumanization, hostility, violence and even murder of trans people.

A 2014 survey on transgender discrimination in the United States reports startling data; 41% of transgender adults have attempted suicide compared to the overall population (1.6%). The numbers only get worse from there: 90% report having experienced harassment or discrimination at work, 57% have experienced significant family rejection, 26% have been fired for who they are, and 19% have experienced homelessness because of their gender identity. In recent years, the number of trans people who have been murdered has gone up too, in particular, trans women of color.

With this information in mind, consider this famous parable, as explored by author Austen Hartke (transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians):

Luke 15:4-7 The Message (MSG)

4-7 “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.

Many of us probably heard this story for the first time as children – it’s a Sunday school favorite, and for good reason! It’s incredibly comforting to imagine yourself as the lost sheep, riding back home on Jesus’ shoulders after an exciting but ill-advised adventure. There are times when this story is exactly the gospel message we need – when we need to hear that we are worthy of God’s love, and the God will risk everything to have us back home again.

But what if we imagined this story a different way? What is the lost sheep didn’t wander away from the safety and goodness of the shepherd? What if it was just trying to escape the cruelty of the flock? Sheep will occasionally pick out a flock member who doesn’t fit in – maybe because of an injury or a strange marking – and they’ll chase that individual away. There are times when I think Christians need to see ourselves more in the ninety-nine sheep who stayed put, and ask ourselves if we may have been a part of the reason that the lost sheep got lost in the first place.

As a ministry professional, are you committed to holding the front door open for all who seek the welcome of its sanctuary or have you placed your foot behind the door so they cannot get in?

How many “lost sheep” are there because we have chased them away?

How do we help them find their way back home?

chrisChris Schaffner is a counselor and veteran youth worker. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.

June 2018 LGBT Pride Month and Queer Youth

June is National LGBT Pride month. Here at Conversations on the Fringe, we celebrate the beauty of diversity. In doing so, we are dedicating the entire month of June to exploring the world of LGBTQIA+ youth. We will explore several themes written by several writers, all from diverse backgrounds.

We want to be clear about the Rules of Engagement up front. Please read the following:

1.) Be Kind and Courteous

We’re all in this together to create a welcoming environment. Let’s treat everyone with respect. Healthy dialogue, even when difficult, is natural, but kindness is required.

2.) No Hate Speech or Bullying

Make sure everyone feels safe. Bullying of any kind isn’t allowed, and degrading comments about things like race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, gender or identity will not be tolerated.

3.) No Promotions or Spam

Give more than you take to this conversation. Listening might be the most significant thing you do. Self-promotion, spam, and irrelevant links aren’t allowed.

4.) Respect Everyone

Being part of this group requires mutual trust. Authentic, expressive discussions make the site great, but may also be sensitive and private. Disrespecting someone will get your comment immediately removed and you will likely be blocked from the site.


CotF Admin

Thirteen Reasons Why (Season 2) Is Back

The controversial Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why is back for its sophomore season. The producers promised to further delve into the challenging subject matter initiated in season one, placing the spotlight on sexual assault and gun violence.

We’re busy at work developing discussion guides for season two but, in the meantime, here are our discussion guides for each episode of season one:

Thirteen Reasons Why Discussion Guides: Season One

If you are not familiar with the subject content of this series, BE WARNED. Each episode has content that can be triggering to people who have experienced trauma and/or suffer from depression and self-injury.

It is STRONGLY RECOMMENDED that the series be watched with parents or other adults to help process the strong visual content and to help manage the risk of triggering stimulus. If you are particularly vulnerable to strong visual triggers, it is recommended you not watch. 

If you, at any time, feel helpless and hopeless and are considering harming yourself or contemplating taking your life, please call one of the hotlines below to talk with a trained staff member immediately, call 9-1-1, or go to your closest emergency room.


What We’re Reading

The War On Kids: How American Juvenile Justice Lost Its Way 

“Dramatically and rapidly, though, the United States became an international outliner in the severity of its juvenile sentencing practices. Each year in America, police arrest more than one million juveniles, and about 250,000 of those kids are charged with a crime and processed in adult court. In some states, children as young as six can be transferred out of juvenile court into adult court without any judicial oversight. Once there, they face sentences – often mandatory ones – that were drafted with adults in mind. If convicted, these children are sentenced to a term of years in a correctional facility fraught with problems, not the least of which is that it was designed for adults. Until 2005, the United States was the only developed country that subjected children to the death penalty, and today we are the only nation that employs juvenile life without parole. Because of their physical and mental vulnerability, youth inmates experience the highest rates of sexual and physical assault, as well as suicide. The Pope, U.N. officials, and international human rights organizations have condemned American juvenile sentencing practices.

So how did we abandon the groundbreaking model of juvenile justice that we constructed only a little more than a century ago?”


How To Say Goodbye (The Voices Project ep. 13)

How do you say goodbye?  It seems like such an existential question and yet it is one that has come up all too often for me as of late. It is one thing to have to say good-bye and move on from people who are your friends. But how do you say goodbye to clients? How do you say goodbye to the people who have trusted you in such an implicit way?

In this blog, I talk about giving a voice to the voiceless. I try to invite the reader in to understand the lives of some individuals who may never have the chance to tell you their stories from their own perspective. I have been privileged to be able to be a person in so many people’s lives who are given the gift of receiving those stories; to bear witness to their pain, their struggle, their hopes, their joys and to weave it all together into this story that is theirs uniquely and worthy of dignity.  And then to share it with all of you, in hopes that we can be more compassionate and more merciful to one another.

There is a sacred trust when someone comes in and starts to unpack their lives in front of you. When they pull out the snippets of sentences that will begin to form their stories, they often hand them to you a piece at a time with shaking fingers and trembling hearts, so accustomed are they to rejection.  And I, by no virtue of my own, other than this determination of my heart to use it in the service of others, was God able to use me to help provide them with that shred of dignity they so desperately needed.

But here is the crux of the issue. When you work in this field, there is high turnover, people get moved, people leave to further their education, whatever the case may be; they go. For ourselves, our clients are individual stories we are compiling which will make up the tapestry of our experiences. But for our clients, we are the dogged protagonist who plays the important role of creating an environment in which change begins to feel possible. We are not bit players, we are perhaps the only character in their story that is willing to see beyond their present circumstances, and we hold their hope in our hands, and then we say goodbye. Sometimes, as it was in a few of my situations, it is an abrupt goodbye. There was not the necessary time to prepare or to make a plan to transition them to someone else. Or to prepare their hearts and psyches for yet another change, another person who is walking away. When you work with the most vulnerable populations, leaving feels cruel, and yet it is at times, unavoidable.

So how do you leave?  How? In my case, I had one lunchtime. I had one hope that all the usual players would assemble and that I would be able to take a few minutes with each to tell them how blessed I was that they gave me their trust, that they shared their voice with me. To tell them that someone else would come behind me and pick up where I left off and that everything would be OK.  There were the ones who asked me why? Why could I not stay at least until……until the housing came through? Until they got their I.D. until they got their 3-month coin from AA they were so excited to show me. Until they found out about the job interview they had just gone on…until. But worst yet were the ones, who simply said, of course, you are leaving.

There are no answers and this blog post is never about a simple answer.

The answer to how you say goodbye, is that you simply can’t.

I carry them all with me. I carry Frank and Chelsea, and Greg, and Shannon, and John…and they become a part of how I will approach the next person, and the next. They have all taught me so much, and there is no way for me to just leave them behind. And so I incorporate their stories and I guard them. I tell people who are complaining about “those schizophrenics who hang out in the library”, what it was like to watch Greg get his first paycheck.  Or when people say that you can’t build trust with a person who has been so brutalized by past abuse, I tell them what it was like the first time Shannon came in and sat next to me in church. When people say that a pedophile can only be treated as the monsters that they are, I will tell them about my friend who found his first job after 29 years in prison, and to celebrate he distributed clean socks and hygiene products he purchased with his first paycheck, to the people living in their cars at the truck stop. I will tell people that we are all a sum total of our stories, and these stories are vast and wide and can’t be put into a category or boiled down to simple experience. I will tell them that saying goodbye means breaking my heart a little wider so that God can fill it more deeply.

In the job that I do, in the organization I work for, we are told that we don’t say goodbye, we say see you later. And so this is what I said on my last day there, see you later.  Because I will; I will see pieces of them in every client that I ever serve. Stories told with the human voice are so powerful, because they can be retold and passed on. It is a sacred trust, and one I don’t take lightly. Not Goodbye. See you later.  

Karen Cassidy (

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.

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