LOUISVILLE (AP) — Nearly four years ago, Angela Renfro founded the Kristy Love Foundation — the only transitional housing in Louisville expressly working to help human-trafficking victims.
And while she no longer is known as Kristy Love, a name her pimp forced on her, Renfro draws on her past when looking to change others’ futures.
Many are local women referred to her by word of mouth, the courts or a social service agency. Some are fresh off the street and need to be detoxed before Renfro will let them in her doors. Stays are as short as a few days and as long as a year.
“I know their darkest secrets they can’t even tell their parents or their preachers or a judge or a lawyer,” she said. “They’re so scared of being judged or someone might not even pray for them or break bread with them.”
Tears come to her eyes. The pain, at times, feels fresh.
“It makes me feel honored,” she said. “It takes me way back. Way back.”
She pauses, closing her eyes.
Escaping her past
It was a numbing existence out on the street, living a cycle of tricks and drugs and men.
She recalls being sexually abused as a child and frequently running away from her Cincinnati-area home by age 9. At 13, she had a pimp and was living off her body, she said.
The pimp named her Kristy Love after a popular black ’70s actress. She would work the streets, and he would feed her cocaine addiction. He loved her, she thought at the time. One day, she would work her way up and be untouchable as the greatest of madams.
But that never happened. She had six children in six years. One was blinded, she says, by an untreated sexually transmitted disease. Many times she thought she would be killed.
Now 47, free of drugs and prostitution for 17 years, even as she stands before students, donors and city commissions to share her story, she still struggles with the stigma, with leaving Kristy and relearning what it means to be Angela.
“Every once in a while, my scars ache,” she said. “But taking care of others help take care of me.”
About a year ago, Renfro sat in the back of a room as the Louisville Metro Human Trafficking Task Force met. She felt like an outsider, holding no degree. But knew she had much to offer.
Task force member Theresa Hayden, a professor at the University of Louisville, remembers that meeting. Having studied human trafficking for more than a decade, Hayden said Renfro’s foundation is filling a void.
“She can speak to the women in a way someone in a uniform cannot do,” Hayden said. “People within the whole street network trust her because she’s genuine,” Hayden said.
The task force has been a main supporter of Renfro’s initiative and is helping her research and apply for state and federal grants to keep the foundation going.
Reliant on private donations, volunteer hours and minimal fees from the women, the foundation is only bringing in half of the estimated $27,000 it takes to operate, Renfro said.
Until recently, the foundation operated in three homes in western Louisville. But in October, all the women were consolidated under one roof.
Since opening her first house a few years ago, Renfro cut her home phone and cable to save a little extra. She’s at the house most mornings and nights leading morning meditation, helping cook and keeping the house on Date Street clean. She drives the women in her own car to counseling, doctor’s appointments and child visitations. She can’t count the hours she’s spent sitting in the Hall of Justice waiting for a sister to get out of court. Some nights are spent behind the wheel, scanning the streets for girls who walked out of the house.
Part of her days are spent in the community, presenting to schools, government bodies and social service agencies, educating the public on her first-hand knowledge of human trafficking. Spreading the word about her work is key if she is to stay afloat.
Believing in change
Nearly every morning, she seems them. Two women on a Louisville street wave to her. She waves back. Sometimes she gives them water or a few dollars. Her son has warned her she needs to be careful approaching people on the street.
“I feel it,” Renfro said. “I feel that nobody ever asks them how do they feel. Nobody asks them do they want any help.”
The foundation is Renfro’s way of making amends after wreaking “havoc” on the community for many years, she said. She wants her girls to be women of substance. To feel like they mean something to the world. To feel safe. To know genuine love.
Not everyone can be helped, she acknowledges. Some women walk out the door and never come back. But most, she believes, she can reach.
“Know why? Because it happened to me. And I believe. Believe if I believe.”