First Memorial To Survivors Of Sex Trafficking To Be Unveiled At Lykins Square Park In Kansas City
The often unacknowledged victims of sex trafficking in Kansas City will now have increased visibility with a memorial designed to honor them and educate the public.
Christine McDonald was 15 years old the first time a man sold her. She went for $2,100 to the owner of a string of strip clubs in Oklahoma City, where she worked until she aged out at 17.
The owner threatened to kill her if she showed her face there again. So McDonald caught a ride to Kansas City, Missouri.
“I think in my very broken, disconnected 17-year-old mind, I thought, ‘Oh, if I go somewhere where nobody knows me, nobody knows this about me, maybe I can be safe, and maybe I can recreate me,’” McDonald says.
Instead, she found herself headquartered at Lykins Square Park off Independence Avenue—one of many, many women being bought and sold multiple times a day. Now, that park will be the site of what is likely the first memorial in the nation to victims of sex trafficking. Its dedication is Saturday.
Kansas City glass artist Hasna Sal dreamed up and executed the memorial, called “Into the Light.” Sal heard about McDonald’s life through a friend and asked to meet with her in Lykins Square Park in the spring of 2019 to hear her story.
Sal, an architect by training and a native of India, says she had no idea sex trafficking was a problem in Kansas City. However, once she’d heard McDonald’s and others’ stories, she knew she couldn’t look away.
McDonald’s life in prostitution, which she’s written a book about and travels the country to explain and reexplain, is similar to others’ who fell prey to sex trafficking: an unstable home and school life, various forms of abuse and neglect, no end in sight to her suffering.
It was a cycle that could have been interrupted at any time if someone had known the signs.
“Everybody went to school at some point. The school system failed. They didn’t want to see. They didn’t want to do the hard stuff. If we don’t catch them before they completely fall, then this is what we end up with,” Kristy Childs says.
Childs runs Veronica’s Voice, a Kansas City nonprofit she founded 20 years ago to offer services to prostituted people, mostly women. She says she’s from Joplin, Missouri, but starting in her teens she was trafficked nationwide.
Childs calls this type of abuse “domestic violence to the hundredth power.” The abuse isn't limited to people we see walking the streets.
She says sex trafficking encompasses “women, men, children, whatever, having to compromise themselves sexually for a place to stay, for food to eat, for a place to shower, for any of their basic human needs.”
The new memorial is significant for a number of reasons, Childs says.
“For me, it’s like we’re being seen,” she says. “No longer can people say they don’t exist.”
Gregg Lombardi is the executive director of the Lykins Park Neighborhood Association. He says his board didn’t hesitate to approve plans for the memorial, which is made up of four stained glass panels, each measuring two and a half feet by four and a half feet. They are named: Damnation, Isolation, Redemption, and Salvation.
He says sex trafficking is no secret, but he agrees with Childs that the tendency is to look away.
“If you admit there are victims, you have to come up with a solution, and it’s not an easy problem to solve,” Lombardi says.
Childs says the issue persists because it’s largely about supply and demand. The demand side is rarely addressed.
She urges people to look at the disparity in numbers. She says a woman who’s forced into prostitution sees between 10 and 25 men each day. McDonald says Missouri’s human trafficking task force—which she is part of—estimates that roughly 3,000 people are trafficked every day in Missouri.
That adds up to 30,000 to 75,000 paid sex transactions a day in one state.
“But we never focus on the men who have the disposable income that are truly the ones making a choice,” Childs says.
McDonald says the activity is organized to keep the women front and center. She was arrested dozens of times—she counts 103 encounters with law enforcement and multiple trips to the emergency room—for a life of crime she was forced into from childhood.
“Nobody said ,‘Hey, what’s going on? Are you safe?’ I was just a homeless girl they knew was a prostitute,” McDonald says. “That’s one of the beautiful things about this monument: These people don’t have to be invisible anymore.”
McDonald and Childs have each been out of prostitution for many years and work to help others out of the situation they know so well, McDonald through her advocacy work and Relentless Pursuit, and Childs through Veronica’s Voice.
But before escaping, they were raped and beaten repeatedly. McDonald was branded and held at gunpoint to dig her own grave.
They want people to know that the men who kept them in these positions of powerlessness did so through withholding food and money, leading them into drug addiction and then withholding the drugs, and depriving them of sleep. Neither wanted to be trafficked for sex.
The memorial’s glass panels are bullet proof and will hang 14 feet off the ground from existing light posts. Viewing them from one direction shows a tale of survival and salvation.
However, Sal says, “it tells the story from two perspectives, so, essentially, it’s also a warning.”
The last day Christine McDonald was sold was Nov. 21, 2004. Soon, visitors to the park where she spent so many hours will be able to view a story version of her descent into captivity and her ascent out of it.
The “Into the Light” unveiling is noon to 1 p.m., Saturday, October 24 at Lykins Square Park, 4115 E. 7th St., Kansas City, Missouri 64124.