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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Faith

Street mission survives Covid, helps women survive even more

Whitney Fullerton (left) and Jordan Boss (right) cut the ribbon outside Lisieux Community Women’s Drop-In Center. The center originally opened in 2021, but was unable to hold a grand opening due to the COVID pandemic.
Whitney Fullerton (left) and Jordan Boss (right) cut the ribbon outside Lisieux Community Women’s Drop-In Center. The center originally opened in 2021, but was unable to hold a grand opening due to the COVID pandemic.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony usually signals a grand opening, a new beginning. But the recent ceremony at the Lisieux Community Women’s Drop-In Center marked an even greater accomplishment.

Survival.

The survival of the center itself, which opened two years ago in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and which was closed for two weeks last year when Covid hit the staff.

And the daily survival of the women served by the center, prostitutes who work — and often live on — the streets nearby along Summer Avenue. Covid is just one of the threats they face every day.

“We have learned that the women we serve need us, regardless of anything that is going on in the world,” said Whitney Fullerton, Lisieux’s program director.  “Pandemic or no pandemic, our clients are so grateful for the simplest things– time, a listening ear, showers, a hot meal, etc.”

The Lisieux organization was started in 2011 by Sandra Ferrell, who retired last year. Ferrell’s vision was inspired by Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-Century Catholic nun known the “Little Flower.”

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love,” the saint once wrote.

That became Farrell’s mission statement.

In the beginning, Lisieux provided an overnight residence for prostitutes in another part of town. Over the years, Ferrell and other staff and volunteers began to realize that women who worked the streets needed more than a safe place to spend the night.

In 2019, Ferrell and others began providing more. They met with prostitutes every Thursday evening in a parking lot on Summer, offering them food, feminine hygiene products, and condoms.

When the pandemic began, Lisieux had to close the overnight accommodations and end the parking lot meetings. Instead, staff and volunteers drove along Summer handing out food and other resources.

The drop-in center, staffed by volunteers, opened in a house on Freeman Street in 2021. Masking, sanitizing and social distancing were required. Men are not allowed on the property.

Women who drop in can eat a warm meal, take a hot shower and a nap, get their clothes cleaned. They also let volunteers know what else they might need — everything from a toothbrush to a sleeping bag.

The center connects women to other resources including Narcan for the treatment of opioid overdoses.

The pandemic delayed the center’s “official” grand opening for two years. The center closed for two weeks last summer after Boss and Fullerton both contracted Covid.

“It was heartbreaking knowing our women were in need and we weren’t there,” Fullerton said. “It was sobering to see that COVID could shut us down in a heartbeat. The pandemic made our clients’ lives more difficult.”

Despite the setbacks, the Lisieux community continues to grow. Two women dropped by the center on the day it opened in 2021. Last year, the center served about 15 women on a regular basis. Over the past year, the numbers have increased to around 85.

“Success for us is a little different than the numbers,” Boss said. “Success for us is every time a woman comes in and she’s hungry and we give her a meal, that’s success. Every time we’re able to connect a woman to an ID or a social security number, that’s success. We see success in little stuff.”

Written By

Morgan “Jake” Lankford is a journalism graduate student at the University of Memphis, where he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism. He has written for the UofM student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, and hosts a show for The ROAR internet radio station here.

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