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Woman’s quest: Help victims of human trafficking



DES MOINES, Iowa — One woman was sold for sex by her mother, another by her grandfather. One woman was forced into delivering drugs, her body a bargaining chip in securing the best deal.

The women came from all walks of life. And whether they were born in central Iowa or moved here from far-flung places, they ended up in towns and cities with familiar names Urbandale, West Des Moines, Ankeny.

The women’s stories converge at Dorothy’s House, a home in central Iowa refurbished, repurposed and opened by Kellie Markey in January 2016 to serve survivors of human trafficking. It’s a place where 11 women, including those with the stories described above, found refuge and a second chance.

Markey is preparing for the organization’s most important step yet. In 2018 Dorothy’s House hopes to be licensed to care for girls ages 14-17. It would be the realization of a dream that Markey has had since she was shaken into action years ago by the stories she heard from girls she met while volunteering at Des Moines-area shelters.

“The earlier that you can intervene in these girls’ lives, the less solidified the abnormal practices of life are,” Markey said.

For Markey, seeing Dorothy’s House fulfill its mission is the culmination of a lifetime of searching. After a stop in corporate America at the height of the tech bubble, Markey left that all-consuming work and wandered from coast to coast, across the Atlantic Ocean and back to central Iowa until a house on an unassuming street called to her and she knew she’d found her passion project.

Dorothy’s House is in the process of securing a first-of-its-kind license from the Department of Human Services, Markey said, and her model of a communal, long-term residential experience that tailors treatment to specific girl’s needs and focuses on flexibility instead of rigid therapy regimens remains untested.

Jerry Foxhoven, a friend of Dorothy’s House and a lifelong advocate for children in the justice system, helped ease the thicket of red tape Markey had been struggling to clear when he was named DHS director this summer. He said he is willing to take a chance on Markey’s model because he trusts her and because the house is designed to respond quickly to the demands of a small group of young people at any given time.

“I think it is more holistic than a lot of other programs in that it deals with everything from mental health to physical health to job training and educational goals all at the same time,” he said.

Markey has always lived life to the beat of her own drum, her sister Margaret Colwell told The Des Moines Register . Not that she was eccentric or the center of attention, but Markey saw her life unfolding in a certain way and she willed that into truth, Colwell said.

Markey went to Central College, where she studied communications.

“She always had high aspirations,” said her college roommate Susan Healy. “She is just one of those people who can do literally anything she puts her mind to.”

After a few years in Chicago, Markey took a job at eBay, where she was one of the online retail giant’s first 200 employees. She rose through the ranks quickly and became a vice president of international business development, racking up miles and passport stamps.

“I was working so much that even as I traveled the world, I lost touch with so much of it,” Markey said.

She left her job and marriage and moved to the East Coast.

In 2012 she took stock of her life’s bucket list and decided to check off a hiking trip through Spain. She’d read about walking the Camino de Santiago, a 625-mile spiritual journey.

It took her about a month. At the end of the trip, Markey returned to central Iowa with a new purpose.

Markey tried to get a job in philanthropy, but she lacked the experience to even get an interview.

“So I started volunteering with Youth Emergency Services and Shelter of Iowa to see if volunteering would scratch whatever itch I felt like I had,” she said.

Two things struck her especially deeply: “The nature and severity of abuse against children in our community,” she said, “and the rate at which girls age out of care systems at 18 without the skills to live independently.”

At the time, Markey was making money flipping houses and renting out units in buildings she owned. Driving between job sites one day she passed a house with a giant sign that just had a phone number on it.

Markey isn’t very religious, but the moment she walked in the dilapidated, old structure in the fall of 2013, it was like a “God moment.” She knew this was Dorothy’s House, a name she selected to represent all the girls she had met who had survived sex trafficking.

“Don’t expect you have all the answers to what’s in store for your life,” Markey said. “When you set a course for your life and don’t allow for deviation, you’ll never know what’s behind Door No. 3.

“And, for me, when I stopped planning and stopped looking so extremely far forward, that was when my life started happening.”

By COURTNEY CROWDER — Des Moines Register


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