How many times have people heard the saying, "don't judge a book by its cover"? Even when a book is tattered, abused and placed on a bottom shelf, it still holds a story. Like books, every person has a story, one not defined or predicted by its cover. Donna Forster understands this first hand. Donna is a courageous, caring woman who dares search society's "bottom shelf," seeking out the stories of Victoria's sex trade workers.
"Every single one of these girls has a story," says Donna, 70. "It's easy to judge, but you don't really know what puts them on the street unless you ask."
Why does Donna care? For her, the answer is simple - it is her calling. More than 11 years ago she founded the Mary Magdalene Program, an outreach program for sex trade workers in Victoria. On Thursday evenings, regardless of the weather, Donna takes to the streets, walks the "stroll" and offers hope and solace to women victimized by street prostitution.
"I felt I was called by God to begin this program," says Donna. "I don't do this for any other reason than because I have a deep compassion for them. When you get to know the girls, it is hard not to love them."
As an active, dedicated Christian, Donna feels compelled to go to those whom society has seemingly forgotten, those who are broken-hearted and wounded, and tell them God loves them, she loves them and wants to help them. For Donna, this is what being Christian is about.
While the Mary Magdalene Program is an outreach mission supported by the Gateway Baptist Church in Royal Oak, Donna says the program is not about preaching to the sex trade workers she visits each week. The approach is holistic; the program is about letting them know someone cares and offering resources to help improve their situation. In support of the program, every second week, the pastor of the Gateway Baptist Church joins Donna to extend support, hope, and to listen without judgment.
"I was terrified on that first Thursday, 11 years ago. But not for my safety," says Donna. "It is a difficult thing to stand up and say, 'I am a Christian' there is a real fear of rejection. I wasn't sure how I would be received."
Now, Donna is known in the sex trade community, and the women expect her and welcome her visits. Along with kind words, counselling and simply bearing witness to the situation on the streets, Donna hands out "goody-bags" filled with candy, food vouchers, perfume and other useful items. Yet, the Mary Magdalene Program offers so much more than this; it offers a lifeline. Donna is a trusted friend of Victoria's sex trade workers. She even hands out a card with her cellphone number, and is on-call 24/7. On occasion, when the circumstances are dire, she has even brought women into her home.
"Many of the women in the sex trade are desperate for help, but don't know where to turn. Many are mothers, good mothers. But society condemns them as unfit and removes their children," says Donna. "This makes them more desperate."
Another goal of the program is to promote understanding and awareness in the wider community. Almost every society has struggled with, and to some degree, tolerated, prostitution throughout history. Even Victoria, though deemed worthy of being named after royalty, is no exception. In the late 1800s, there was an active red-light district in Victoria's downtown core, and nearly 125 years later, prostitution is still an issue. But today, the stakes are higher. Drugs, violence, pimps, and homelessness often force women to the streets.
"These are not throw-away people," says Donna, "they have fallen by the wayside for many different reasons. If God granted me one success, it would be to convince society that these girls are no different than the rest of us."
At one time, Donna says she would speak to 25 or more women on her Thursday night visits, but now, there are less than 10 she encounters on any given Thursday. She contributes this to a shift in the region's sex trade industry to escort agencies and other less visible "off-street" prostitution services. The sex trade is real, even if people can't see it or try to ignore it. Donna personally knew two victims in the Pinkerton tragedy and still wonders how society allows its women to disappear with no significance and why it takes the disappearance of 10 or 20 women before people take notice.
"Some people actually spit on our homeless and sex trade workers," says Donna. "Instead of passing judgment, a smile, a hello, a simple acknowledgment might just be enough to convince them they don't deserve this," says Donna.
The Mary Magdalene Program hopes to begin a transformation by consistently telling sex trade workers they are loved and do not deserve this life. Donna's long-term goal is to rally enough support to open a safe house. More than shelter, she would like to provide re-training and rehabilitation. She believes one day it will happen.
"This is a difficult ministry, because many people can't understand. When I meet up with these girls, they always have positive attitudes, and you can see a glimpse of hope."
Ultimately, Donna feels honoured to do what she does, and the reception she receives from the women she meets on her Thursday evening strolls. She is convinced people can make a difference, and our witness keeps the spark alive - taking notice offers hope.
Donna finds treasures in society's "throw-away" people. Through her work and devotion to the Mary Magdalene Program, she challenges people to reconsider what they judge to be trash, and exile to society's bottom shelf.