Recovering Prostitutes’ Bodies, Souls Nourished By Unlikely Source

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M&M cookies, similar to the ones Mrs. Smathers made for the girls at CATCH court.(Photo: Dyanna (Flickr))
M&M cookies, similar to the ones Mrs. Smathers made for the girls at CATCH court.(Photo: Dyanna (Flickr))

A retired couple from Nelsonville has taken unconditional love and volunteerism to new heights. Each week, they drive almost two hours to the Franklin County Courthouse to help former prostitutes turn around their lives. WOSU reports on the love the couple and the women have found over home-cooked meals.

It’s a typical Thursday afternoon in courtroom 12-C at the Franklin County Courthouse. Two dozen or so women sit at a large, semi-circle desk facing Judge Paul Herbert’s bench. They’re eating homemade food.

“Today I have some kind of chicken casserole, which is awesome. I think it has some Mexican bean in there somewhere. A salad with ranch dressing. I got some chocolate chip cookies. There’s M&M cookies in there.”

The women are part of a unique program for convicted prostitutes called CATCH court. Instead of going to jail, the women participate in two years of intensive addiction rehab and therapy programs. They have to show up to court every week. Also in court every week are Diana and Paul Smathers, otherwise known as Grandma and Grandpa. Diana made the casserole.

The Smathers first were introduced to the program by Vanessa, one of the first women to take part. Vanessa dated the Smathers’ grandson during high school and they think of her as family.

“When she got out of jail she was telling us about the CATCH program. We started coming here with her the first day,” Mrs. Smathers said.

Not long after their first visit…

“We were going home and those girls in there kept saying they were hungry and they didn’t have anything. And I said, Paul, let’s surprise them next week and bring them something up to eat. He said OK. So, gosh, I can’t remember what we brought, but me and him stayed up most of the night and made it. And we brought it in and they were really shocked,” she said.

Vanessa said the Smathers’ have helped teach her about unconditional love.

“Like real, real friendship, real love. Things that I am just learning about and just really getting the real taste of because I have always been in positions where people had motives — motive after motive. It just really feels like they bring it because they want to care for us and they want to help us and to show us that we deserve it,” Vanessa said.

And Vanessa does not mean deserving of the food, she’s talking about love. Many of the women were abused as children and then abused by pimps and drug dealers. So for many, the Smathers offer the only real love they’ve known.

Rita Lynch has been in the program about a year-and-a-half. She said she’s immensely grateful to the Smathers’ humble gestures. “It kind of felt like they were loving me when I couldn’t love myself,” Lynch said.

Paul Smathers’, a retired bus driver, is quiet and unassuming.

“I mean they really appreciate it, and we appreciate bringing it,” Mr. Smathers said.

Mr. Smathers’ is humble about the help he and his wife provide. But Judge Herbert does not hesitate. He said Mr. Smathers bought and donated a school bus for the women to have transportation to different events.

“I tell you what, they are probably the best examples of the indomitability of the human spirit that I can think of. They inspire me to want to be a better person,” Herbert said.

In nearly two years, Diana and Paul Smathers have missed only one or two days at CATCH Court.

“We don’t miss because all these other girls are our girls, too,” Mrs. Smathers said.

And if a nearly two-hour trip each week wasn’t hard enough, Mrs. Smathers is seriously ill. Her diabetes caused cirrhosis of the liver and she’s waiting for a transplant. She has been for two years. But she said making the drive to Columbus each week helps.

“When I can come in here and not feel good at all, I walk through that door and it’s just like a miracle hit me. I just start feeling better. And look at all of them smiling at us and they’re all running up to give us a hug. And it’s just an unconditional love you can’t explain,” Mrs. Smathers said.

Vanessa, the woman who dated the Smathers’ grandson, soon will graduate from the program. But the Smathers said they plan to continue to feed the women who help nourish their souls.