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Helping Women Leave the Streets Behind


Jerri Rodewald, a bespectacled 55-year-old grandmother, sits in the Reseda home that houses six former prostitutes who are reshaping their lives. In the Colonial-style living room are a piano, a globe, magazines and a sign above the fireplace proclaiming "Virtue never pays."

Rodewald is deeply sympathetic to the women. "Every woman we work with here is a victim of child abuse. Most are beaten and probably 90% to 95% are sexually molested," she says of the clients of the Mary Magdalene Project, which she has served for 11 years. The organization says it's the only long-term residential program helping prostitutes.

Since she learned of the project through United Presbyterian Women, Rodewald has headed the Magdalene board of directors for four years and served as executive director for seven.

She neglects to mention that she's donated lots of money.

"She kept us alive for 10 years," says Presbyterian Rev. Ann Hayman, who works with the prostitutes. "She dealt with lots of foundations. When they didn't give us money one year, she went right back the next. I would guess that after two or three years of seeing her or after recognizing this was a viable program, they would give us money. That's kind of her style."

It costs $25,000 a year to house a woman, Rodewald says. The project seeks referrals from Sybil Brand Institute for Women, usually women in their mid-20s to early 30s. Clients often go first to a residential drug program because they must be sober 90 days before living in the Magdalene home. They commit to stay in the house for six months, but most aren't ready to leave for 18 to 24 months.

"I think prostitutes are the most ignored community of women because people think they can just walk away from it, and that's not true," Rodewald says. "There are no skills to do anything else and no self-esteem.

"We feel they need a different kind of program than homeless or battered women. They need a long-term, holistic approach. They need education, career counseling, job training and life skills--how to write a check, balance a check book, cook or clean a bathroom.

"It's not uncommon for these women to have only a fifth- to eighth-grade education, and they have no experience working in another field."

Almost all of the 125 women who have completed the project have been successful and about 115 have entered mainstream employment, Rodewald says.

She enjoys "the excitement of watching a woman's life change, the opportunity to use my skills in something worthwhile."

A few weeks ago, Rodewald resigned as executive director to concentrate on fund raising, which cuts her 50-hour work week about in half.

But she'll remain involved.

"She knows the women. She follows their progress very closely. It's not just a hobby. It's been a total commitment," says Hayman.

(Readers may contact the Mary Magdalene Project at (800) 371-7230 or (213) 725-7230.)

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