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Former D.C. Prostitute Still on the Streets Now Helping Others to Quit the Game

When McReynolds walks in, the room quiets. The women know the outlines of her story: She was 11 when she started smoking marijuana and drinking J&B scotch. When McReynolds was 13, a 60-year-old neighbor paid her $40 for sex. Five years later, she was using heroin and selling her body in alleys, cars and abandoned buildings. She quit school and started punching a street clock, split shift, 5 to 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., charging $20 at a time when crack addicts were getting as little as $5.

McReynolds tells the women that low self-esteem is behind their behavior, and she embraces the role of disciplinarian. She hugs a crying woman who says she missed classes to tend to her sick mother but added a month to the woman's required stay. "You have one last chance," McReynolds says. "You can't help your mother if you don't help yourself first."

Her goal is to save them before their behavior catches up with them. In 1985, McReynolds learned she was HIV-positive. She carries bottles of water because the drugs she must take often leave her throat dry and voice hoarse.

Not everyone is receptive to spending four months of her time going to classes, three or four hours a day, and staying out of trouble. The program graduated 129 women between October 2006 and December of last year. But 209 others were booted out for failing drug tests or missing classes.

One recent afternoon, after classes, two women got into a car instead of the van waiting to take them to their residential program. Staffers ran screaming after them, but the women did not return.

Another day, a woman who had been admonished for talking out of turn refused to write "I will not talk," 200 times. She threw her notepad, pen and folder and stormed out. "It's bull-- ," said the 26-year-old as she strutted down the street. She faces a month in jail. "That's if they catch me," she said. "So what? It's only 30 days."

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McReynolds had been nonchalant about her behavior, too, until the rape.

Her mother, Naomi Mathis, now 77, recalls many nights spent looking for McReynolds when she was a teenager. At times, months passed without any word from her.

"I thought I was going to crack. I was helpless. She was so stubborn and headstrong," said Mathis, who raised McReynolds's daughter, Kia. "All I could do was pray."

Eventually, McReynolds got therapy and found jobs as an HIV counselor and outreach worker for women trying to get their lives together after prison. She got married, but the relationship didn't last. Among other things, flashbacks from the streets made intimacy difficult, McReynolds said.

At 45, she got her high school diploma. Later, she earned a bachelor's degree online at Belford University and a master's in human services at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. She's studying for her doctorate at Capella University, specializing in the impact of trauma on women.

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