Kelley Stagnaro of BeLoved Atlanta
How long have you lived in Atlanta?
I grew up in Fayetteville. I went to college in Milledgeville, GA at Georgia College. Got married right out of college. My husband and I lived in Roswell for a year, and then we moved to Atlanta. So I’ve lived in Atlanta for 3 years.
What were you doing before you started BeLoved with Amelia?
So before BeLoved, I had graduated college and was working at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta doing volunteer coordinating. It was basically a paid internship, and I ended up staying for an entire year. I did patient parties and meetings with special guests and a little bit of the PR aspect as well, which is what I went to school for. Really loved it there. Great community.
But then Amelia and her mom had just moved to Atlanta specifically to start something to serve the population of women who had been in trafficking, prostitution and addiction. They originally thought it was going to be a conference. Never really the residential home aspect. Amelia and I met while we were in college through a mutual friend. We would see each other at different school events. So we’d see each other 2–3 times every 6 months, and we just started connecting over the issue of sexual exploitation. She was kind of my main friend that I discussed that with.
She and her mom were actually planning to go on a trip to Costa Rica to do outreach with an organization called LightForce International, and their one of our sister organizations now. So they went overseas, and I knew they were going. I wanted so badly to hear about how it goes and her experiences. So she came back, and she was telling me that prostitution there was legal. So it looked very, very different — mainly because it’s physical. The main thing here in Atlanta is a lot of it is underground or online, but in Costa Rica it was very much the same women and men and kids standing on the same street corner every single day. So it was really easy to be able to build relationships with people.
When that woman realized Amelia wasn’t expecting anything in return when everything in her life had been transaction after transaction — it was just a game changer.
And I just remember her telling me that she would go up everyday to the same woman. She would bring her tea and cookies, and there was obviously a language barrier in Costa Rica. But she would try to love that woman as best she could. She said that when she gave her the tea and cookies, when that woman realized Amelia wasn’t expecting anything in return when everything in her life had been transaction after transaction that it was just a game changer — despite a language barrier or any other barriers that existed.
So her and her mom decided after that trip — ok, we’re going to do this full-time. I was still in college at the time. Amelia had already graduated. I was like, please let me help. Please let me be a part of this. So from a distance I was, as they kind of researched what they wanted to do here in Atlanta. I would step in for different meetings that they had.
She began meeting with other organizations and just asking what’s the need here and where are the gaps in our city.
She began meeting with other organizations and just asking what’s the need here and where are the gaps in our city. I stepped in around that point, and people just kept saying long-term residential homes and beds, specifically adult women. Because there were just no services for them.
So her and I were both at our different jobs. She was doing commercial real estate administrative work, and I was at CHOA. I remember we would g-chat all day about this dream of starting an organization and what it would look like. We started working on our 501(c)(3) paperwork and business plans and strategic plans and all the backend stuff on top of our jobs. It grew to be something bigger than we expected it to, and God’s hand was really on it. We were both able to quit our jobs. We applied for our incorporation, so we became incorporated June 28, 2012. Then we quit our jobs in September of 2012.
Then about 2 months after that we had someone come alongside us and say we want to provide the initial funding for BeLoved. We went in with a small amount of seed money, so Amelia and I were able to pay ourselves a little bit and making a living. More than that we were able to get marketing materials and launch the initial things that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
As you learned more about prostitution, addiction and trafficking in Atlanta, was there ever a point where it was overwhelming?
So while I was in college I interned with Wellspring Living. I did more of the administrative side, so I wasn’t quite as hands-on with the issue. At the time, it seemed a lot bigger to me, because I wasn’t building relationships one-on-one with the women in that program specifically.
So when we started launching BeLoved while having our other jobs, we started doing a life sills class at the Salvation Army with Haven ATL. That was really my first time getting to know the women one-on-one, and it was then that I really quickly realized that they were no different than me. I think that was what kind of shifted my mindset. The issue seemed so big and overwhelming, and then it was when I could sit down one-one-one and talk to a girl and hear her story and then relate with her and see her as a friend and even as a sister. That really shifted it for me.
There was one girl at Haven. We were talking, and I was doing resume building stuff with her. I had grown to know and love her over time. I looked at her address, and I was like — that’s weird, I grew up in Fayetteville too. She was like, oh my gosh that’s crazy. She asked where I went to school. So I told her what middle school and high school I went to, and she said — me too. We found out that we had gone through middle school together. We were in the same grade and had gone through part of high school together, and she had dropped out.
To see the different paths based purely on circumstances, and I could remember her even back in middle school. That was something that made it seem a lot more real. It made the issue of trafficking not seem so dramatized to me. This was a girl that was a peer, even a friend, and then this is the situation that she’s in now.
It became so much more clear to me when I realized that abuse was a root issue for the women. Both myself and Amelia come from a background of some kind of abuse. I can relate to them at that level. That’s what made them get this mindset that they’re not valued, not loved, and it’s ok for people to use you for sexual favors. That can be one of the root things that can push them into it if they don’t have a support system. And that alone. It doesn’t have to be that they grew up on the streets, and this dramatized version that we think of.
A lot of people think that volunteering looks like one thing. I can only give money or work in a soup kitchen. How did you take your skills and background in PR and your passion to help these women at BeLoved?
Before I started anything with BeLoved, I was really passionate about the issue. So I felt this tension. I was like, how do I do something that seems so much bigger? I have a background in non-profit management and PR. So it was my dream to start an organization and to be a part of launching an organization. But I never imagined that it would happen so soon or what God’s plan would be for that.
Even when I was in support of the issue before I was in a role one-on-one with women, just the awareness aspect was really huge. So being able to share events happening in our city and how I could be a part. One of the things I always grasped was that they needed money. So I shared the needs that they had. That was part of where my gifts were. I enjoyed writing and doing social media, so I used those things in college when I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to the issue. I think the more you can rally people around the cause in general, and it’s different for different stages of life.
From the backend of BeLoved, I see so many different ways that we would love people to be engaged. We were talking this morning about the church as a whole, and how people say — you should have volunteers do this. We are the church. We see their brokenness so clearly. Here’s four women that need the church to rally around them. It can be as easy as that — coming in and serving the women. If it’s a meal or taking them to do transportation or just coming to sit with them and pray. It can be so many different things that we as a church are called to be.
Just the bravery that they have impacts me every day.
How does it make you feel to know that you’re making a difference one woman at a time?
I feel really humbled to be in any position where I am getting to know these women. Again, the issue is so dramatized. A lot of times people view the women as victims or weak — “Just get a job. That should fix everything. You should be able to get off the streets pretty easily.” But getting to truly live life with them, I am so thankful that we are smaller. At times we only have four women at a time, but we’re walking through literally every decision with them.
At intake you’re hearing their whole background story and every abuse they’ve ever experienced. Just the bravery that they have impacts me every day. They’re making the decision to come into a program where they do not know anyone. They’re trusting 4 young staff members with their recovery journey, and they’re stepping into a lifestyle that they’ve never known or lived before. No aspect of it is comfortable for them. We see that more and more being in this work. Every time we welcome a new woman into the BeLoved home, she is waking up every single day and having to make a brave decision — to get up, get herself ready, go to outpatient rehab, come back to the office and face counseling and case management and looking at her goals for the program. And she’s making a 2 year commitment to that.
Typically the age that we’re serving tends to be mid-twenties to thirty-five. So these are women that have been adults and have been on their own for a long time. So for them to be able to humble themselves and trust us is just huge. It’s hard in a lot of ways too. We’ve had women leave. We’ve had women relapse. We are just so invested in their recovery that it’s really emotional for the staff. But I’m thankful it’s that way. Because if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re called to do. It’s going to be messy.
Is it intentional by BeLoved and do you think it’s more impactful that you focus on only 4 women at a time? Because these women have been overlooked, their lives have been a series of transactions and they’ve never really had someone to focus and dedicate energy into their lives?
The model that we’re based on is through a program in Nashville called Thistle Farms. They’ve been around for 17 years, and their model is a community of homes in one neighborhood of Nashville. It’s typically in a neighborhood where the women used to work. So they’re walking through what it looks like to rebuild your life, rebuild your community and essentially continue to live in that community and be able to afford to live there. We’re modeled after that program, so we go visit and see the family environment that they’ve created. That’s what we want for our residents too.
We have one home right now with four beds. We’re doing a campaign at the end of this year to purchase a home. Right now we are just renting our home. We’re going to purchasea home that will be able to serve up to 8 women at one time which is doubling our capacity. It doesn’t sound like a lot to a lot of people, but for us it’s huge. It means walking through things with 4 more women. For us our vision is always to have that family and community environment. So as long as we are having the women live in community together, if that’s in a larger home or multiple smaller homes, it’s recreating that family environment for them.
I’m really thankful that we’ve started out with 4 and stuck with 4 for the past two years that the home’s been open. We’ve been able to learn and grow a lot more and walk alongside them and learn from that too.
Since starting BeLoved what have you learned that has shifted your mindset about helping people?
Realizing that they’re no different than me was a really big shift in my mindset. I, honestly, going into this I still assumed that women chose the life of prostitution. I didn’t think they did if they were kids, but if she’s 20 or 30 she must have chosen that. I’m ashamed to say that, but I learned really quickly that wasn’t the case at all. I started to view things as what’s the root issue behind where they are and why they’re here. That was a really big mind shift for me.
If she can be kept from being devalued even once, that’s enough.
Even when I see on the exit, there’s always a homeless person standing there. There’s always that debate — do you give them money? Or are they just going to use it for drugs? My mindset recently has been — if I can give them anything that will keep them from having to put themselves in a comprising situation, then that is enough for me personally. It could be a woman that she would potentially sell herself that night to get some extra cash. So if she can be kept from being devalued even once, that’s enough.
Would you say that prostitution and human trafficking is what breaks your heart most about Atlanta?
Definitely the issues of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and even sexual abuse really do break my heart. But I think neighbors devaluing each other is the thing that breaks my heart the most. We’re all in the same community, and we’re devaluing each other. That’s the hardest concept for me.
I think neighbors devaluing each other is the thing that breaks my heart the most.
I love this city, and I love my community. It’s hard to watch when there’s an article posted about a prostitution bust and to see the comments below it of people in that community saying — “Oh, they deserve that.” They’re people too. I think I take that harder than anything.
If you could challenge and encourage the citizens of Atlanta to step up and help those in need one by one, what would you say?
For me, it’s ok to be uncomfortable. You do not have to have all this prior knowledge and training to know how to serve people. But just putting yourself in a position where you’re willing to be uncomfortable.
It’s ok to be uncomfortable.
Until I was willing to be uncomfortable in my lifestyle and even when we first started BeLoved and had our first residents… being ok not knowing everything upfront and giving myself grace in that. But knowing that you’re showing someone that they are valued and they are loved makes a really huge difference. People in need know that. They know if you’re being genuine, or if you’re not being genuine. They can read people really well.
What do you mean when you say uncomfortable with your lifestyle?
For me, I originally did not want to live in the city. I did not want to be in situations where I felt unsafe at all or in a neighborhood where I felt unsafe. Even financially I had a certain view of what I wanted my life to look like. It was getting to the point where this is more important than those things. It was hard for me to get to that point, because I struggle with wanting these things for myself. There’s this struggle with being in non-profit too. You have to be able to humble yourself to those things, because those things will bring you down in the non-profit sector and even in ministry. You can become bitter over what you think you deserve. But I don’t deserve anything.
The first year or two of BeLoved was so, so hard. We were all giving so much of ourselves to the cause and to the women. In some ways, we learned our boundaries. I look back, and this has prepared me in so many ways. Both Amelia and I were such different people when we started BeLoved versus who we are now. It’s just incredible to see the growth that you experience personally just through walking alongside people, and you can do that in any aspect of your life.
Going forward, how should people think differently about the issues of prostitution and human trafficking?
One of the things that we fight a lot with this issue is that the child who is being trafficked is a victim, and when they turn 18 years old and blow out the candle on their birthday cake then they become viewed as criminals. So, fighting that mindset. If you’re challenged with that idea that “she chose to be a prostitute” — that’s just not the case. That’s one thing we fight here in Atlanta. There’s a lot of really great things beings done for the kids being trafficked, but the adults are really overlooked and viewed in such a different light than these little girls who are going up to be 18, then 25, then 35 — and that’s when we find them after they’ve had 15+ years of trauma in that world of trafficking.
As told to Kristen Green on Friday, August 7, 2015.