WILLISTON, N.D. (Christian Examiner) – With little more than her past to help her, Windie Lazenko makes regular rounds of neon-lit strip clubs and bars across western North Dakota and eastern Montana, constantly on the lookout for women being trafficked by pimps, some beaten if they do not bring in $1,000 a day from their "johns" in this cash-rich, women-poor part of the nation.
"I speak their language from the get-go," Lazenko said of the women she encounters. "I'm not law enforcement. I'm not out there to bust them. They don't have to play the game with me."
Sexually abused as a child, she ran away at 13 and was trafficked and married at 16 to a much older man. She became a mother at 19 and a strip club dancer for three years before she walked off the stage at 32 when she realized she did not belong there.
"They're going to respect me and I'm going to respect them," Lazenko continued in an article published March 8 by Associated Press. "We're going to have a conversation. I know what it is to be out there."
New technology has made retrieving oil shale in western North Dakota, eastern Montana and southern Alberta, Canada a profitable venture in successive waves. Oil companies and oil field service companies are making money. Farmers and other landowners leasing out their mineral rights are making money. Businesses and even churches are making money.
And oil field workers are making money, lots of money.
The region has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, and entry-level rig workers with no experience or skill make upwards of $66,000 a year, according to Rigzone, an industry information provider and job website.
For the most part the men live in dorm-like man camps and spend their free time in bars, where pimps often have women ready to provide "personal service" to the men.
Lazenko has become one of the most prominent activists in the fight against sex trafficking in what is known as "The Bakken." Her advocacy comes as state lawmakers consider an array of new measures -- including greater penalties for pimps and more money to help victims -- to combat the growing sex trade.
"It's powerful for them [lawmakers] to say human trafficking is here in North Dakota," Lazenko told AP. "It's just huge that they've acknowledged it."
Law enforcement officers are being trained in how to identify trafficking, such as by the tattoos pimps have inked on the women they "own."
Lazenko, 46, moved to North Dakota in 2013 from her home state of California, according to an article in BakkenToday.com. She has helped several trafficking victims who have fled their pimps, sometimes opening her own apartment to them because other housing options are limited.
The grandmother of three said she would like to open a shelter for trafficked women, whose dehumanizing issues often are much more severe than even for victims of domestic violence. Besides, she said, domestic violence shelters already are overcrowded.
This summer she plans an outreach program that would visit truck stops, which are common markets for prostitution, to let potential victims know help is available.
"We're often working against years of abuse," Lazenko said. "The 'rescue' mentality really doesn't work. A lot of the girls don't understand that there are people that count their lives as worthy and really want to see them live a purposeful life"
She also escorts some women to court hearings or meetings to be witnesses for prosecutors trying to make cases against traffickers.
It is not an easy task: Some women do not consider themselves victims; sometimes police do not realize the women are being coerced, and others do not take Lazenko seriously.
She still regrets her past, she said, but that former lifestyle prepared her to minister to others now that she is a born-again Christian.
"They think I'm some kind of wounded warrior who wants to come in and make peace with my past by doing this work," Lazenko said. "They don't understand I kind of know what I'm doing."
U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon told AP that Lazenko is "the real deal."
"She doesn't give up on these women," Purdon said. "She's been down this road and knows it's a long march to get out."
In bars, in dressing rooms and wherever she encounters human trafficking victims, Lazenko talks with the women about hope.
"I tell them that they were created for more than this, that they have value and talents and they deserve a better life," Lazenko said. "There's hope, there's hope. It's just a reminder for me too, that even on the bad days, there is hope."