A former convent in Lewiston is now a safe haven for a small community of women who have survived a trifecta of traumatic, adverse experiences—sex trafficking or exploitation, addiction, and incarceration.
“We’re more than a sober house,” said Sophia House founder Klara Tammany, who lives on the second fl oor. “We know that often people who struggle with addiction or have been incarcerated were likely exploited, if not trafficked; they just don’t use that language. But their troubles now are rooted in that life-long trauma.”
Six women—all trafficking survivors—will live here for two years, rent free, and receive support services and job training. Each woman will have a room of her own and access to a shared kitchen, bath, living room, and dining room. Five other women who support the mission of the house rent apartments on the fi rst and second floors, covering the cost of running the building—or at least that’s the hope.
This first-of-its-kind program in Maine is coming to fruition now partly because of seeds sown in Lewiston decades ago by two orders of Catholic nuns. The Sisters of Notre Dame lived in a convent on Bartlett Street, and the Daughters of Wisdom ran a drop-in women’s center called the Center for Wisdom’s Women on Blake Street. The center served hundreds of women in what is called the “B-Street neighborhood” because the streets are named Blake, Bartlett, Birch and Bates. It’s one of the poorest census districts in Maine, where over 40 percent of the residents live at or below the poverty line.
With the nuns aging and dwindling in number, the Sisters of Notre Dame closed their convent in 1965. For the same reason, the Daughters of Wisdom were ready to close the Center for Wisdom’s Women in 2008. A core group of volunteers who didn’t want to see the center close persuaded the Daughters of Wisdom to let them run it as a private nonprofit. Tammany served as executive director.
“It’s a weekday drop-in center,” Klara says. “Anyone can come. There’s no charge, no appointments, no paperwork. It’s very low barrier. It is a place to bring women together and support each other in building community and making life better.”
Early on, Klara knew that the needs in the community far surpassed what a drop-in day center could achieve.
“We began to look around and think about the problem behind the conditions we see— including addiction, mental illness, unemployment, diabetes, and obesity,” Klara says. “We learned about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the impact of trauma, particularly on women, when it goes unaddressed. ACEs and trauma explain every woman who was coming through our doors. Studies show that the impact of ACEs leads to more isolation. The key is bringing people out of isolation, and it takes a long time.”
For 20 years now, Thistle Farms, based in Nashville, has been providing a two-year program of supportive communities for women who have experienced sex trafficking, addiction, and incarceration.
“The women live together and hold each other accountable, have all the support they need, and live there rent-free for two years on average,” Klara says. “Thistle Farms is highly successful. Two-thirds of the women who start the program finish, and 84 percent remain stable and sober.”
After a visit to Nashville in 2015, Klara had a vision for what the vacant Sisters of Notre Dame convent could be. St. Mary’s Health System, which by then owned the building, first agreed to sell it for $45,000. But the Center for Wisdom’s Women wasn’t going to be approved for a Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston affordable housing grant for half a million dollars of renovations unless the building was donated—and that’s what St. Mary’s did. Two communities of the Sisters of Charity gave significant seed funding, the project obtained historic preservation tax credit approval, and in less than a year, the Center for Wisdom’s Women fundraised the remaining $700,000 needed for Sophia’s House to open without a mortgage.
The first program resident moved in on Dec. 23, 2019 right after she was released from prison. For a few years now, Klara has been connecting with the Maine Correctional Center and county jails to get to know women before they are released and welcome some of them into the Sophia House program.
“When we work with women, I say, ‘Hon, it’s not your fault that you’re in this bind,’” Klara says. “That’s the ACEs pattern, that you were terribly abused or traumatized as a child, so when you’re 12 or 13 you run away from home. When you’re on the street at hat age and you’re hungry and you don’t have a roof over your head, what’s your choice? You go sleep with somebody so you don’t starve to death. And then they hook you into sleeping with other people—for money—or they start giving you drugs so that you’re dependent on them. You eventually are arrested and thrown in jail. When you get out of prison and you have two weeks of meds and $50 in your pocket.”
“When we work with women, I say, ‘Hon, it’s not your fault that you’re in this bind’.”
And the pattern repeats—unless, somehow, it is stopped. The road back from sex trafficking, addiction, and incarceration to love, sobriety, and freedom requires patience, Tammany says. There’s no quick fix in unwinding a lifetime of adverse experiences.
“One six-week intensive outpatient program (IOP) will not undo it on its own,” she says. “Counseling won’t undo it on its own. Medication will not undo it on its own. You have to have community support that is caring and respectful, you have to tend to someone’s inner spirituality, and you have to be trauma and gender-sensitive.”
That’s what Sophia’s House is striving to be—and is becoming. The six survivors in the Sophia House residential program walk to the women’s center and participate in IOP. Health Affiliates Maine is providing mental health therapy, addiction work and case management; Central Maine Medical Center’s Family Medicine Residency is providing physical health care; and the six dentists in town have each agreed to take one patient pro bono. Although all this community support is critical, much of the healing process happens from within—with selfforgiveness. And, eventually, women who graduate from the two-year program could rent one of the apartments and become survivor leaders.
Sophia’s House Program Director
How does a girl from Lewiston get sexually traffi cked? And then become a leader in the recovery movement?
Tricia Grant grew up exposed to alcohol, drugs, and sexual abuse and, by the time she was 12, she was struggling with housing stability. At 14, she was pregnant. At 15, she was a mother and a part-time high school student, scrambling between her job at McDonald’s and babysitting, desperate to pay bills.
“Just hearing what my community was saying about me made me the most vulnerable,” she says. “I heard comments like, ‘There are my tax dollars going to waste.’ So I stopped receiving all assistance.”
One day at work, Grant was talking with a friend about the struggle to earn enough money and how afraid she was that if she didn’t “do everything perfectly” that her son would be taken away. Two men overheard and invited the girls to come to an apartment the next evening to hear about a way they might be able to earn some money.
”I don’t think we even thought about what it was,” Grant says. “We went up there and they raped us. They gave me a pager and told me, ‘When this pager goes off you better show up there we tell you to show up, or we’ll have your son taken away from you.’ They knew that was my biggest fear, and they exploited that.”
As ordered, Grant showed up when the pager went off, or someone would pick her up and bring her to a strip club, a hotel room, or a party.
“I tried to stay in school, because it was my only safe normal place,” Grant says. “People saw the good things I was doing being a mom. They recognized that I was a very good student and was smart and they encouraged me in that way. Then school ended in June, and by the time September rolled around, I was too broken to go back.”
Grant never again saw that friend who walked into the sex trafficking trap with her; she’s still missing.
“That’s the reality of this,” Grant says. “People go missing all the time, if we don’t help.”
There were other girls—and they never knew where they were going, how long they’d be gone, or what would be expected of them.
They were silent. For Grant, silence became chronic.
“After that year and a half, when I was no longer being trafficked, I didn’t tell anybody for 16 years what had happened to me,” Grant says. “I didn’t know what had happened to me. I didn’t know there was a name for it, and I had hidden it, trying to live a normal life and trying to pretend everything was great.”
And then one day Grant was at a fundraiser where a presenter spoke about sex traffi cking—and, for the first time, Grant knew that none of it had been her fault.
“That really rocked me and broke me,” she says. “I had a teaching job that I’d been at for 11 years that I lost because I couldn’t keep it together.”
Putting a name on her nightmare and letting those memories rush back in
was a bit like rebreaking a bone so that it could set properly. She took a summer to regroup with her kids and heal emotionally, then took substitute teaching and catering jobs—gigs with the fl exibility to put her emotional health first.
“Once Homeland Security cleared me, I was able to share my story for the fi rst time,” Grant says, explaining that there are details that she can’t share because they could jeopardize an open investigation. “I got involved with organizations that would hire me to share my story with law enforcement or do independent consulting.”
Over the past seven years, Grant has partnered with Courage Lives in Northern Maine and helped start a safe house in Androscoggin County. Now, asprogram director at Sophia’s House, she’s following a calling to “help others become survivors and then thrivers.”
She says, “Witnessing the brokenness in humanity, I talk to God a lot. It took a while to really let myself let go and let God.”