After listening to Ann Marie Babb’s story — and at times, just sitting there, almost numb in disbelief — there are lots of things you might expect her to say.
One of them isn’t: “I’m one of the lucky ones. Very lucky.”
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Consider that Babb, now 50 and living in Middletown for two years, was a teenage drug addict and alcoholic who was sold like goods in the despicable and ugly world of human trafficking. There were nights, she said, when she was dropped off at a Cincinnati house — so drugged she didn’t know her name — and she was unwillingly passed from man to man.
Raped 20 or 30 times.
Her disturbing journey began when she was 11 or 12, growing up in an upper middle-class household in Hyde Park, a Cincinnati suburb. She kept a bottle of Bacardi 151 rum in her private-school locker and she can’t remember a day when she was sober. That led her to a path of being a habitual liar and thief.
After high school, she moved to California, and when she returned to Cincinnati as a 19-year-old, she moved in with a girlfriend. Only one problem: That girl’s boyfriend was a human trafficker and in Babb, he saw an easy target.
“Vulnerable, lonely and with the wrong people” is how Babb described herself. “They made it very plain they had other plans for me.”
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So for five years, until the man who owned her — “a very prominent drug dealer” — was convicted of drug trafficking and sent to prison, Babb lived the dark world that left her physically abused and psychologically scarred.
No wonder the Middletown Community Foundation selection committee named her winner of the AK Steel Magnolia award, an honor designated for a woman who has overcome obstacles. Maybe next year, it should be renamed the AK Steel Babb Award.
Babb was nominated by the Rev. Sheresa Simpson-Rice, pastor at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. Simpson-Rice said before the two met she “lived a comfortable existence of ignorance” because she was educated and moved up the ladder of life.
“It has opened my eyes to the way we have begun to look past one another as a society, living anonymously so we don’t feel compelled to learn the hidden struggles of the people who walk our streets and shop at our grocery stores,” Simpson-Rice said. “They are everyday people trying to live everyday lives with extraordinary battles to fight every single day.”
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Babb will take the $2,500 prize that comes with the award and donate it to the Springhaven Home to be used to educate the community about human trafficking. She wants to spread the word, tell her story and let others caught in the trafficking trap realize they can escape. Eventually, after funding is secured, her dream is to open a facility for abused women.
“It’s not talked about enough,” she said.
“It’s an uncomfortable conversation because people don’t want to talk about sex, they don’t want to talk about rape, they don’t want to talk about humans being sold, but it happens here,” she said. “I have seen it here. No woman willingly walks into prostitution. There is a reason. There is something or somebody controlling that.”
Once women get involved in human trafficking they have a seven-year life expectancy and since the average age in Ohio of a girl sold is 14, they barely celebrate their 21st birthday. They either overdose or die at the hands of their owner, said Babb, who estimates 1 percent to 2 percent of the women escape.
“Our children are being sold,” said Babb, adding that 70 percent are sold on the Internet. “It’s not the woman on Crawford Street. It’s 13-, 14-year-old girls sold on the Internet.”
Babb now proudly proclaims herself a survivor.
“I lived through a lot of stuff that people wouldn’t or couldn’t live through,” she said.
She doesn’t shy away from the human trafficking label.
“It’s who I am,” she said.
Now, Babb said, she realizes the night the guy who owned her was sent to prison was the start of her road to recovery. But it came with some detours. She found herself homeless. She eventually landed in a Cincinnati hospital where the staff thought she was just a drug addict looking for a fix.
“I died that night,” she said of her first night in the hospital. “I was begging them to let me die.”
She was transferred to the psychiatric ward for several days, marking the first time she was clean or sober since she was 11 years old. She has been clean 26 years and credits much of her success to her intense therapy.
“They have to be loved back to life,” she said of women sold. “They have to be. Because if not, they will go back on the street.”
Babb has returned to the streets, but this time as a messenger. She hopes other women learn from her past.
She has a 24-year-old daughter, a teacher at the Cincinnati Center for Autism, and two teenage sons. All three were born after she was sober and clean.
“I’m grateful for every punch I’ve taken, every bad thing I’ve seen, every bad thing I’ve done because it has made me who I am today,” said Babb, financial secretary at United Church of Christ. “And I knew that God had a reason for me to go through those experiences and that’s to talk about it and give other women hope that they can escape also.”
She’s lucky. Very lucky.