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Stripper Turned Minister Saves Sex Workers, Sends Them to Church

Fort Myers ministry helps women leave sex trade

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For seven years and in 13 cities, Julie Taylor Shematz was Diamond. She danced in front of strangers in dark, smoky rooms to make a living.

Shematz, 44, has given up the strip-club circuit and now headlines Beauty From Ashes with her husband, Steve. The nonprofit counsels erotic dancers, sex workers, porn actors and sex-trafficking victims.

Starting Tuesday, Shematz’s ministry will hold its annual Beauty From Ashes National Strip Club Outreach & XXX Ministry Training at Word of Life Church in Fort Myers. Its purpose is to coach volunteers on how to reach out and offer workers in sex trades a way out.

In the sex industry, Shematz said the line between stripping and exploitation can often become blurred. “I didn’t realize was how all that mental, physical, verbal abuse would affect me over time,” she said.

Shematz works up to 60-hour weeks with the “overcomers,” as she refers to the women. Through her Web site and social networking sites such as Facebook, she reaches dozens. “It takes a long time for these girls to become adjusted to society,” she said. “The temptation to go back is always there crouching at your door.”  Aid could be assistance through education, job placement, relocation if necessary, and short-term housing.

Shematz visits the ministry’s adopted club, Fantasy’s at the Beach in Fort Myers Beach, once or twice a month, bringing food, provisions and sometimes prayer. She also has referred women to her home church, Word of Life Ministries in Fort Myers.

The church’s New Life Center on Collier Avenue is a self-contained haven for people looking to change their lifestyle, and an alternative to jail. The facility houses 113, providing room and board while clients go through a rigorous 18-month program.

“We provide personal counseling and biblical healing. There’s a need in the community for restoration,” said Bishop Gaspar Anastasi, who founded the first center 26 years ago in Freeport, N.Y., and in Fort Myers six years ago.

The program costs $700 per student, which the church’s congregation pays for through donations. The ministry boasts a 98 percent success rate.

Woman and men at the Word of Life Church eat, sleep and pray in separate areas. Some mothers live at the facility with their children.

Reality struck Shematz when she decided to complete her college degree at 28. She was taking classes in Indianapolis while working up to five part-time jobs.

“I just thought to myself, ‘I’ll do it for a short while,’” Shematz said about stripping. A short while turned to years, even while working at what she called “the nicest club in Indianapolis.” Stripping fed her desire for attention, Shematz said, but it also made her hate herself later.

Today, Shematz has trained outreach groups in Indianapolis, Detroit and Daytona Beach — all cities in which she performed.

Fantasy’s is the only strip club in the area in which Shematz has ministered. She’s waiting for the right time to go to other clubs in town.
Not all performers want to be saved. At Lookers on Fowler Street, Zahara works on her routine making what she said is up to $500 a night at times.  She’s not ashamed, but said she’s used to people such as Shematz telling her to quit.

“Everyone sees strippers as drug addicts and whores, but the thing is, a lot of the girls aren’t,” said Zahara, who declined to give her real name. “I’ve been clean for six months.” To her, “Lookers is like a family.” But Zahara has other dreams. “Sometimes it’s hard to put on that smile,” she said. “But it pays the bills.”

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