MINNEAPOLIS – Could big comfy pillows, colorful bedding and rugs, freshly painted walls and decorative art help protect girls from abuse and exploitation?
In fact, it’s the hope of the staff of Brittany’s Place, a shelter for child victims of sex trafficking. The shelter got a free makeover this month when a volunteer group of professional interior designers turned stark bedrooms and lounges into bright, cheerful, teen-friendly places where girls can enjoy hanging out — and maybe stick around a while longer.
The girls at Brittany’s Place can move in or out as they wish. Temptations to leave, perhaps to reconnect with the very people who exploited them, can be dismayingly strong. Late one night last year, a sex trafficker stood outside the building calling for a girl who had told him her location.
“Every night a girl stays here is a night she’s safe,” said Dan Pfarr, CEO of 180 Degrees, a St. Paul organization that provides services and shelters for youths and paroled offenders. “We’re really trying to create an atmosphere where girls feel safe, feel welcome. … Environment changes everything.”
Staff members have always worked to make girls feel welcome and comfortable, but the building’s interior, a look best described as “institutional,” was not helping. The wall colors were drab when the shelter opened in 2015. By early 2020, they had also endured five years of wear and tear in a building that shelters about 100 girls a year.
The staffs at Brittany’s Place and 180 Degrees, the nonprofit organization that runs Brittany’s Place, thought brighter colors might feel more inviting, so they requested professional advice about paint.
But interior designers Jennie Korsbon and Lisa Ball found it wasn’t just the walls that were drab. The bedrooms were small, their furnishings austere, like dorm rooms before the freshmen arrive.
“After coming here to look at the paint colors, we realized there was a lot more we could do,” Korsbon said.
“Before we knew it, they had lined up interior designers to decorate each bedroom,” said Janet Hallaway, advancement director at 180 Degrees.
Most years, members of the Minnesota chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) collaborate on a Showcase Home. They designate some luxurious residence, where each designer gets a room and a generous budget. In 2020, though, the project was canceled because of — you guessed it — COVID-19.
So Korsbon and Ball, members of ASID’s community service committee, proposed that volunteer designers could focus their sprucing skills on Brittany’s Place, dividing the rooms among themselves. But compared with Showcase homes, 180 Degrees’ decorating budget was considerably less extravagant — about $2,000 to cover the whole project.
That wasn’t going to do it. So designers pitched in their own money and collected donations from businesses including Ethan Allen and Benjamin Moore.
“The dollar value for the rooms is low,” said Richard Coffey, 180 Degrees’ senior program director. “But the value of creating those rooms to the youth they serve — you can’t put a dollar figure on it.”
Plymouth designer Christine Tanaka “jumped at the chance” to join the project, aided by her 11-year-old daughter, Sienna. “It’s a concrete example of how you can use your talent and your energy to do something good in the world,” Tanaka said.
Her ideas weren’t just visual. She left two books on the desk of the room she decorated: Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou’s classic 1969 autobiography about overcoming racism and trauma.
The budget was beside the point. “This is way more rewarding than working on those Showcase Homes,” Korsbon said. “This just obviously feeds your soul.”
Americans unfamiliar with sex trafficking might think of it as a crime that happens somewhere else. In fact, Minneapolis is one of the top locations in the country for child sex trafficking, according to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.
But victims come from all parts of the state — cities, suburbs and small towns — and from various backgrounds and family situations. They include all races, although the majority are girls of color. Many are vulnerable because they’re homeless, have addictions or are being physically or sexually abused already. They are trafficked by predatory supposed “boyfriends,” sometimes even by family members.
One girl, the youngest ever to stay at Brittany’s Place, had been “passed around” by family members and their friends, said Michelle Hall, program service specialist. She arrived at the shelter with drug addiction and signs of severe physical and sexual abuse. She was 11 years old.
For this reason, laws around and terminology about sex trafficking is changing. For example, what used to be categorized as prostitution, a crime for both the provider of sex and its solicitor, was redefined as exploitation in 2011 when Minnesota’s Safe Harbor Law was established, recognizing that minors sold for sex are victims, not criminals.
More attention is also being drawn to places where sex trafficking increases, such as big sporting events and concerts.
“I look at large sporting events so differently since I’ve been working here,” said Coffey, a former forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The shelter is named in memory of Brittany Clardy, who came from what many would describe as an ordinary background. She lived with her two parents and siblings in St. Paul, got good grades in high school, planned to go college, and worked at a recreation center with children.
But she lived a double life, her family later learned. Her sexual services were being advertised online where one night she was solicited by a man later convicted of murdering her. She was 18 years old.
Now the shelter that bears her name offers trafficking victims education, therapy and whatever other help they need to fix their lives. Sometimes it works, even if it takes multiple attempts.
“We may see them again,” when they leave Brittany’s Place, Hall said, “Or we may not see them again.”
Brittany loved butterflies and the color purple. Some designers incorporated those aspects into their decor, including one long purple wall in the hang-out room that also holds books, games and a big TV.
The designers also sought feedback from the girls on what colors and images they’d like to see. It was important to give them choices because “they lack choices in their lives outside the shelter,” Hallaway said.
“It was all over the board,” Korsbon said. Some said they wanted calming colors. Some wanted bright colors. Some of the younger girls wanted unicorns.
To protect their privacy, the girls generally don’t interact with visitors. But as the designers applied the finishing touches to their rooms, several sent handwritten notes.
One girl commented: “I actually like it because the rooms here were plain and looked like shelter rooms, but with them getting redesigned [they] will be better and will make girls feel like they’re worth something and they [can] accomplish something.”
“I think the renovations are nice,” another girl wrote, “and it’s cool that they’re doing this.”
To Krystal Hollins, Brittany’s Place’s senior program manager, that understated note reflects one of the most important elements of the project. The designers are role models. Not just as successful professionals, but as “a community of humans who will be kind.”
Kindness has been scarce in the lives of many of these girls. The designers show that, somewhere out in the world, “there’s a lot of possibility,” Hollins said.