Image: Loris Lora

Picture the downtown intersection of SW 11th and Jefferson, circa 2009. Amy-Marie Merrell was out for her 4 a.m. run with her dog when she noticed a man standing on the sidewalk with a crying woman in his arms. As Merrell passed, she saw that, actually, the man was hugging her with his left arm and punching her in the ribs with his right.

Phoneless, Merrell ran into the nearby Safeway and yelled for help.

“The security guard smirked at me,” she recalls. “He said that she didn’t want help—she was a prostitute. She was going to get arrested.”

When Merrell, who works in production at Wieden & Kennedy, went to then-police chief Rosie Sizer, she found the city’s police bureau had limited resources to help sex workers and devoted only seven officers to fighting human trafficking—despite Portland’s reputation as a major thru-way for sex traffickers.

Friends told Merrell about a Las Vegas–based nonprofit, the Cupcake Girls, that had just expanded to Portland. The group provides support for those involved in the sex industry—which for the nonprofit encompasses prostitutes, strippers, and online sex work—and those affected by domestic sex trafficking.

Now, Merrell and a group of Cupcake Girls Portland volunteers visit strip clubs every month to build relationships with those who work there, though Merrell is at pains to point out that not everyone there is need of their assistance. The Cupcake Girls are often accompanied by hair and makeup professionals. They carry resource cards and, of course, sparkly pink cupcakes—which the group uses as a conversation starter.

The cards point to a list of services, including trauma support, dental care, sex worker–friendly pediatricians, and safe house connections. The Cupcake Girls provide discounted or pro bono services to clients who fill out an online form. Last year alone, the organization donated more than $386,000 in client services through its chapters.

“We’re not there to disrupt their workflow, but we are there to brighten up their nights and offer them service if they want or need it,” Merrell says. She says she has spent nights in hospitals with clients experiencing an overdose and days with clients trying to get their kids back—often as the only support they have. For Merrell, it’s time well spent. “After doing that work with the Cupcake Girls, it set the tone. I am never not going to do this.”

Do you know other nonprofits, organizations, or volunteers doing incredible work? Nominate them for our 2019 Light a Fire Awards—submissions are open now!

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