The call to be a part of something bigger can come at any time. For Sue Kirby, fate rang over a cup of coffee with an idea that would soon become Brightstar Community.
“In 2004, my husband and I were sitting and having coffee and I said, ‘You know, I really want to create a safe place where individuals can recover their true self,’” Kirby said. “And he stopped me and said, ‘Honey, you need to write that down. I think you just said your mission statement.’”
Brightstar Community, Kirby’s non-profit organization, was founded in 2004, with the aim of creating a safe place where individuals could recover after being victims of sex trafficking, prostitution, addiction, or abuse. Kirby was inspired by her own experience with addiction and alcoholism to help others start their independently-led lives sooner, through intervention.
“This is something I want to share with other women so that it doesn’t take them 10 years to start that journey after putting down the drug or the drink,” said Kirby, who has been sober for 28 years. “I want them to be able to start sooner and learn the tools to identify the things that trigger them.”
Many of Brightstar’s patrons are sex workers, and Kirby said people don’t realize that many of them did not choose the life they are now stuck in. Often, they were trafficked years ago and later kicked out of their homes because they were no longer considered attractive or agile enough to be sold.
Many of them get trapped in a harmful cycle of trusting men who promise to take care of them and receiving instead highly-addictive drugs that make it hard for them to stay away.
To combat this, Brightstar gives them a place to stay for two years, rent-free, and focus on themselves. A crucial part of the transition is the Adverse Childhood Effects (ACE) study done by a mental health professional. ACE measures the levels of childhood trauma that a person has endured. With this ACE score, Brightstar can create an individualized program for new members.
The women take care of each other through peer mentorship, working with each other to recover and get the skills they need to thrive in the world. Brightstar helps them find jobs and slowly come off food stamps. Brightstar also helps them work with the court systems to wipe away anything that’s been put on their record while they’ve been victims, so they can be employed.
“Many of these women don’t have identification because it was taken from them, so it’s working with them to get their identification back or getting an ID, and then teaching them the skills with a social enterprise or other organizations in the city that are willing to employ these women,” Kirby said.
Right now, Brightstar Community is helping women go to sister organizations as they prepare to launch their first house, Lisa’s Home. It’s named after a friend of Kirby’s, Lisa Rainey Miles, who unexpectedly passed away in 2006 and was part of their first board of directors.
During the day, a residential manager and program director will be around to help the women with mental health, outpatient addiction services, and appointments that they might need. Kirby also plans to have a rotating system of people on call during the nighttime so they can handle any issues that might arise. Trained professionals are also expected to go to Lisa’s House to provide women with holistic treatments and life skills, like trauma-informed yoga, meditation, and cooking healthily on a budget.
Although the location of the home will be kept secret for security reasons, it will be located on Rochester’s bus route so it’s easily accessible. Word of the location of Lisa’s House is passed on by Kirby and allies of Brightstar Community, when they visit so-called red light neighborhoods.
In all of this, Kirby’s main responsibilities are to network, educate the public, fundraise, and find sponsors.
While Kirby’s work is expanding, she knows that she won’t be able to help everyone she reaches. But she expressed her desire to persist. “You can’t convince them,” she said. “You just have to keep being present and available and earn their trust.”
Despite the difficulties that have and will arise, Kirby stays positive.
“It’s for the women,” she said.“They need this safe place and to be loved where they’re at and be nurtured.”
That process of transformation is what inspired the Brightstar Community logo, the dragonfly. Said Kirby of the women, “they might feel like an ugly creature coming out of the swamp but with some pain that they have to go through in that transformation, when they get to the other side, they’re this beautiful creature that brings so much joy to others.”