Angel tree helps survivors of Atlanta’s sex trade

The Atlanta Decorative Arts Center’s angel tree. (Special)
The Atlanta Decorative Arts Center’s angel tree. (Special)

Angel trees are common around the holidays. Churches, schools and other groups engage in this annual tradition, where names are chosen from beautifully decorated trees, and then gifts are purchased for families in need.

This year, for the first time, interior designers at the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center (adacatlanta.com) added a twist to their angel tree giving: survivors of Atlanta's vast sex trade were included as gift recipients.

The names of about 20 women from City of Refuge (cityofrefugeatl.org) were included on cardboard angel cards placed on the group's massive tree.

City of Refuge is a one-stop shop for people who find themselves in crisis. The nonprofit organization provides shelter, job training and medical, dental and mental health care.

“These are women that are victims of human trafficking. It’s a matter, I guess, of survival,” said Susan McNeese, who has led ADAC’s angel tree effort for 31 years. “It changed the way we were looking at people in need.”

The women opened their gifts Christmas Day, said Kelsi Deel, who directs City of Refuge programs aimed at women exploited by sex trafficking. “Putting gifts under the tree was special. It was really cool to see their reaction. It was like they were like 5 or 6 years old again.”

Deel said the women, who are over the age of 18, are victims of prostitution, escorting and stripping. “A lot of them do have children, but they are not on campus with them.”

Atlanta’s sex trade “is very evident,” said McNeese, who has attended seminars on the issue. “We say, ‘Oh, the Super Bowl is coming to Atlanta’ and, yes, that’s what brings it in. Sports seems to be a big draw.”

ADAC designers are accustomed to working with clients who spend thousands of dollars on kitchens and other rooms. ADAC’s campus in Buckhead includes 60 showrooms featuring fabric, furniture, floor and wall coverings, rugs and other accessories.

McNeese began the angel tree tradition at ADAC with the support of Jeff Portman, the manager at the time. Portman is the son of developer John Portman, who gave his wife the center as a birthday gift, McNeese said.

Designers purchased blouses, sweaters, shoes, gloves and hats for the angel tree recipients. Some purchased inspirational books.

“Most everyone did a sweater or a puffer jacket or vest,” McNeese said. “Of course, (the women) are out in training for different careers.”

“This is really what it’s all about,” said McNeese, who grew up in Ansley Park and lives in Marietta.

“What I realized 31 years ago, when I was doing it, is that Christmas is about giving. We get so wrapped up in what are getting and what are we getting our kids. But, what do we really need? When you look at these people, they really have nothing. Their children are farmed out; they live in shelters. What they have is in a duffle or a suitcase on wheels.”