For EleSondra “El” DeRomano , making peace with her past in order to help at risk youth avoid the same pitfalls she herself could not, has become a way of life.
DeRomano, a former sex worker, abuse victim, gang leader and lost soul, still spends her evenings walking the streets of East Toledo. This time, she is looking to save young women and men from the traps set out by those who would use them.
“I am out on the streets every night,” DeRomano said. “I can tell you that it is bad in East Toledo. A lot of people may not know it, but there is a lot of sex trafficking out here. Many of these kids are very naïve and do not understand the path they are being led down. I am trying to help educate them and get them off the streets and onto a better path.”
DeRomano knows of what she speaks. Originally from Detroit, she was born into a family of drug dealers and prostitutes.
“My dad was a pimp and my mother was a ho,” DeRomano said without hesitation. “When I was 4 years old, my dad went to prison for killing two men, both drug dealers, after they called my mom a name.”
DeRomano was placed in a foster home after that, because her mother was an alcoholic and prostitute.
“When I was 9, my mom fought to get me back,” she explained. “Then my momma’s boyfriend abused me sexually.”
At the age of 11, DeRomano was taken and forced to work as a prostitute by a man who was involved with one of the men her father had killed. DeRomano believes she was taken for retribution.
Working on the streets for one and a half years, DeRomano was able to escape her captor after telling a “trick” about what was happening.
“When this trick came to do his duty I told him my age and what was happening,” DeRomano said. “He left and told police. I was very surprised by that. I had told a lot of tricks the same thing and they just did their thing anyway. They did not care.”
Returning home to her alcoholic mother, it did not take long for DeRomano to take hold of her own reigns, so to speak, and lead a gang of 130 girls.
“I had been bullied and now I became a bully,” she said. “We were involved in prostitution, selling drugs, just making money. I shot a man after he tried to rape me. I rolled him into a carpet and left him on the curb. I was sentenced at 12 and a half years old to a juvenile facility. I was released at 17, almost 18 years old.”
DeRomano, who was now “aged out” of the foster system, came to Toledo with a Christian family.
“There was a hit out on my life at the time because the man I shot was also a drug dealer,” she said. “I was asked if I wanted to go with this Christian family and I thought, ‘Why not?’”
While working for House of Emmanuel, in Toledo, DeRomano realized she needed to do something to move forward from her past.
“It made me realize I needed to step up and do something to help kids,” she said. “I had to tell my story and make a difference.”
DeRomano opened up “Wake Up Youth,” a program that catered to human trafficking victims and survivors. She was also highlighted in a book published by Shared Hope International, a national anti-human trafficking organization.
DeRomano also assisted the Federal Bureau of Investigation by getting women to testify against sex traffickers in the 2005 Precious Cargo case. The huge bust, which took place in Harrisburg, Pa., involved numerous Toledo victims and offenders.
“In 2005 and 2006, Toledo was the number-one city in the nation for sex trafficking,” DeRomano said. “Now, we are number four. It’s a huge problem and not just an inner city problem. Parents need to know that just because you live in Northwood, Ottawa Hills or out in rural areas, your kids are still susceptible to pimps and how they trap people into prostitution. We have to educate these kids to keep them safe.”
DeRomano speaks locally and nationally at schools and other events to get the word out about trafficking and bullying. In 2012, she opened STARS (Standing Together Against Real Slavery) in the old Oakdale Church, located at 441 Oakdale.
STARS offers a 24 hour crisis line for young people who are being exploited. There is also the Girls Crisis Prevention/Intervention Program, Outreach Programs for Survivors of Exploitation and a street outreach program which DeRomano does every night.
STARS will also be hosting a dance the last Saturday of every month to give youth something to do and a place to hang out and be safe.
The first dance was held on Valentine’s Day weekend and was attended by 50 youth, DeRomano said, adding they enjoyed the food and live DJ. Those who attended could also leave information about bullying, if they or a friend were being abused or were on a path that they were afraid of.
“The anonymous box helps kids get information out without having to say who they are,” she said. “We will have that box at every dance.”
STARS is also working with Jamal Grant, owner of Da Shop, on East Broadway, to put together an anti-bullying and life skills workshop.
Grant became involved in anti-bullying work after a family member passed away recently. The family believe the young lady had been bullied online.
“I really did not know about how bad bullying was until it hit home,” Grant said. “We need to get kids to realize what bullying is. Many do not believe that talking about another kid, gossiping, is a form of bullying.”
Grant wants to provide programs for kids to keep them from being bullied and to keep them from becoming bullies. He also wants kids to stay out of gangs and learn life skills.
For more information on the anti-bullying program call Grant at 419-450-4990.
The next STARS dance will be Saturday, March 28, from 5-9 PM. For more information about STARS or to get tickets, please call “El” at 419-245-8023. Those who would like to attend the dance are also welcome to get tickets the night of the dance.