PRESTONSBURG – Growing up as a small town girl in the peace and tranquility of rural eastern Kentucky, Rhonda Stapleton could never have imagined she would one day be a daring crusader against human trafficking on the inner-city streets of Orlando, Fla.
Nevertheless, as the founder and director of Samaritan Village, she is living her calling each day, providing a lifeline to women desperate to escape lives devoured by drug addiction and prostitution.
After graduating from Johnson Central High School in 1979, Rhonda obtained an associate’s degree at Prestonsburg Community College (now Big Sandy Community and Technical College) and then a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration at Berea College. After graduation, she worked in a variety of business-related jobs, including court reporter, office manager, and human resources, before enrolling in Asbury Seminary in Lexington to pursue a Master’s of Divinity.
“It was a calling,” she says to explain this dramatic life shift. “I had a real desire to help or empower people who are marginalized.”
After completing her master’s degree, she immediately put her degree in service to her calling, and moved to Orlando, Florida in 2002. There she worked with Restore Orlando, an organization that served poor families by offering adult education classes, hot meals for children, and a food pantry, among other services. After the organization decided to become a school, Rhonda began serving as a chaplain in the prison system.
Before long in that new position, Rhonda realized that she was seeing many of the same women over and over, cycling in and out of the prison system. She came to recognize that the women were not succeeding in life outside of the prison walls because they did not have a support system that allowed them to make better choices. Whenever the women completed a jail sentence, they went right back into the same environment and structure that had contributed to their incarceration in the first place. And the cycle began all over again.
So, she fine-tuned a business plan she had been tinkering with for some time, and approached a large church in the area for start-up support for Samaritan Village. On the organization’s website, www.samaritanvillage.net, Samaritan Village is described as “a Christ-centered transitional program for women desiring freedom from chemical dependency and sexual exploitation. Through solid Biblical teaching, women learn who they truly are at the core (the true self), what they are wired for, and how they can live wholly, successfully and productively in society.”
With financial support from the church, Samaritan Village was established as a non-profit charity in January 2009. Rhonda purchased a home that could house up to four women at a time for a nine-month treatment program that offers “group structure, counseling, relapse prevention, life skills training, career assessment, continued education, fiscal responsibility, goal setting, and community service and outreach for a holistic approach to healing and wholeness,” according to the website.
“The women come to us after completing a (drug) detox program,” Rhonda explained, “and we guide them through a 12-step program to help them avoid relapse. We pair them up with mentors and help them get plugged into the community.”
“The hardest step,” Rhonda continued, “is helping them find jobs. No one wants to help a former prostitute.”
She is quick to note, however, that no young girl ever sets out to be a prostitute and too often the downward slide into prostitution began with some sort of abuse or violence, which in turn often leads to drug use as a means of escape. The drug dependency then becomes the tool that abusers use to control the female and facilitates her decline into prostitution.
In fact, Rhonda is quick to share some startling statistics: Florida is the third leading hub for human trafficking in the United States; the average age for a female to become a prostitute is 13; and the average service span as a prostitute is seven years, with the most common escape from a life of prostitution being death.
Even though it is a new program, Samaritan Village has already enjoyed some success. Four out of five women in the first class who completed the entire program are still drug free and off the streets. “The women are doing well and are on the right track”, Rhonda notes proudly, while acknowledging, “they are still working on their journey to recovery.”
Although her education and life have followed a rather circuitous path, Rhonda recognizes that the education and employment twists and turns all had a part in getting her to where she is today.
“It’s hard, difficult and challenging work,” she admits, “but I’m happy with my life. I believe God weaved the path, along with choices I made along the way, and that shapes who we are for where we need to be.”
Although she is in a ministry field, her business education and background prepared her to write the business plan for Samaritan Village and gave her the knowledge to teach money-management skills to adults. As a member of a business honor’s club at Prestonsburg Community College, Rhonda was tasked with fund-raising for a charity event and that early experience contributed to her courage and skill today in fund-raising on behalf of the Samaritan Village.
From the small community of River in Johnson County, Kentucky to the big city of Orlando, Fla., Rhonda Stapleton has traveled far in miles and motivation. Today she is dedicated to the rescue and recovery of abused and damaged women who have, in large part, been written off by society.
Rhonda’s creation, Samaritan Village, has a completely different perspective of these women: “At Samaritan Village, we believe that not only will the lives of Samaritan women be transformed, but their families and communities will be changed as well. The cycle of addiction, sex trafficking, violence and despair must end. This is where it stops.”