Four years ago, Shamelle Rice quit her comfortable position as an art teacher to venture into an area where only the courageous and deeply caring would dare to go. Shamelle decided to devote her time and energy to working with female sex workers to get them off the streets.
Today she does not regret the move which has brought her considerable satisfaction. Every time she helps to facilitate a woman’s transition from sex work to owning a small business or finding a new source of employment, Shamelle feels a great joy that only those who know her story and passion would understand. She is feeling particularly upbeat and brighter these days as she prepares to meet Queen Elizabeth II in June from whom she will receive an award recognizing the work she has been doing.
The 28-year-old is the proud recipient of a 2016 Queen’s Young Leader award for outstanding community work in her chosen field. She is the second young Barbadian female who has won this prestigious award this year. “It is still kind of ‘is this really happening?’”, she said in an interview with Barbados TODAY. “But I know that the time is coming closer and there is so much work that is a part of the Queen’s Young Leaders programme that we have to be involved with.
“It is pretty intense so it is becoming more and more real to me. But I am really excited to meet the Queen,” Shamelle added, noting that it is not every day someone receives an invitation to Buckingham Palace to meet Her Majesty. Asked why she chose to get into this area of work, a relaxed Shamelle noted this question is thrown at her all the time. She slid back in her sofa and spoke about a dream she had at 14 years old. She also mentioned the effect of reading an inspirational book called The Prayer of Jabez House which revolutionized her outlook on life.
The dream was about having a place called Jabez House to work with young women who had been abused or were struggling to overcome other challenges.
Working with sex workers was not at all in Shamelle’s plans. But as she grew older and got exposed to documentaries about women, she started looking at problems Barbadian women encountered. “It pretty much led me to developing an interest in that area. Myself and others who had been doing some outreach were able to dialogue with many of the ladies. It became apparent that these ladies did not see sex work as their dream job,” she said.
Through these encounters, Shamelle realized that issues of poverty and leaving school early without certification, drug abuse and domestic violence are among the main reasons why sex workers turn to the streets to sell their bodies. Additionally, research also showed Shamelle that more than 90 per cent of sex workers were abused as children.
A programme to help these women to focus on self-development, would be a good idea, Shamelle thought, after going through her research process. “Some were saying they left school early and could hardly read.
We said ‘well, here is what we can offer you.’ Persons that said they can hardly find a job or don’t have any skills, then we focused on skills training. “We tried to make the transitioning process as easy as possible so food, clothing, at times housing, psycho-social support, counselling we provide, in addition to our day-to-day classes and medical services.” Jabez House has developed interesting ways of getting information out to sex workers about the life changing services they provide free of cost.
There are also referrals. July marks four years since the project was launched. Shamelle said just over 50 women so far have gone through the Pathway to Productivity programme which is for one year during which the Jabez House team works closely with participants. She said out of the 50 ladies who have so far participated, about 15 have completely left sex work. One lady who thought that she would never have been able to come off the streets will celebrate three years of this achievement after selling her body for 10 years.
Noting that some critics may say that 15 was not big enough a number to be considered successful, Shamelle pointed out that there a lot of issues and dynamics which are found to be at work when talking about sex work. “One of the things we have rated as a success as well is those ladies who have gone out six nights a week who now just go once every two to three weeks. Moving from every night to once whenever, we have a lot of women who (have done) that,” she said. “We have had to work with women who have felt that ‘this is my only way out.
This is the only thing I think I’m good for right now’. Seeing them leave is extremely rewarding. The hours, the work and the tears sometimes too, really make it worth it.” She said there are some women who after having an engaging and uplifting day at Jabez House, still go on the streets but it is because they have children to maintain and bills to pay. “They may live on their own and landlords may be on their backs about the rent money.
They are hesitant about going on the road, but it is their only way out,” Shamelle said. The project head said if Jabez House can provide a place for these women to stay on a more permanent basis, the overall success rate of the programme would accelerate. “As it stands, it is just some place where they come and go.
We really need this housing project,” she explained. As for quitting her job, Shamelle said she was newly married at the time and was doing well in her profession as an art teacher but setting up Jabez House was something she just had to be. She could no longer take not fulfilling her dreams.
“You know when you just had this longing like you just need to do it or you feel you are going to explode. I was at that place. I loved my students but I just thought there was something else I needed to do with my life,” Shamelle said. She pointed out that because of the way the programme is structured, it would have been impossible to manage Jabez House part time and work. Jabez House’s programme is supported by financial assistance from kind-hearted Barbadians and a local trust.
Saying she has no regrets, Shamelle said bidding farewell to her teaching job is one of the best decisions she has ever made, after marrying her husband Anderson and loving Jesus. “It has been a very intense four years but it has been easily the best four years of my life hands down.
I am excited about the years ahead because I just know that Jabez House is going to do so much more. I am excited about the women that we are going to be able to impact and as a result, the families that would be touched,” she confidently declared.