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Former stripper will lead church service at Williston club

WILLISTON, N.D. - A former stripper turned chaplain and victim advocate will share her story Sunday at a Williston strip club. Windie Lazenko, founder of 4her North Dakota, will lead what's she's calling "church for the outcasts" at 1:30 p.m. Sun...

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Windie Lazenko, a former stripper, speaks to a church in Miami in 2015. (Submitted photo)

WILLISTON, N.D. – A former stripper turned chaplain and victim advocate will share her story Sunday at a Williston strip club.

Windie Lazenko, founder of 4her North Dakota, will lead what’s she’s calling “church for the outcasts” at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Whispers Gentlemen’s Club in downtown Williston.

Lazenko, who assists victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, plans to share how she survived sex trafficking and encountered Jesus in a strip club.

“This is where I was back in the year 2000. I was at a point in my life where changes needed to be made,” Lazenko said. “I point to my faith in God in that moment that made a defining opportunity for me to fulfill another path.”

Lazenko, who is now a licensed chaplain, said she wants to bring a message of hope and encouragement to a group of people who may not feel comfortable going to church.

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“We’re called to go to them,” said Lazenko, who last year did outreach in a California strip club where she used to work.

Since coming to North Dakota two years ago, Lazenko has worked to build relationships with strip club management and she said Whispers has been receptive to her efforts.

­“They’ve been so open to being educated and aware about human trafficking, really keeping an eye out for that element to surface within their clubs, definitely keeping an eye out for underage applicants,” Lazenko said.

­­Some dancers Lazenko has reached out to have left the clubs and gone to school, she said.

“Some girls have been able to make positive change in their lives,” Lazenko said.

John Hinton, general manager for Whispers, said he and other employees plan to attend Sunday’s service.

“I don’t think church has to have a steeple,” Hinton said.

On Tuesday night, the Williston City Commission will discuss new ordinances that would eliminate exotic dancing in downtown Williston. The proposal would allow Whispers and neighboring Heartbreakers to continue operating in their current location as bars, but it would restrict adult entertainment to certain industrial zones.

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Although Lazenko does not support keeping the strip clubs open, she worries about the impact the decision could have on employees, particularly the dancers, if the clubs close abruptly.

“It does leave them more vulnerable to getting into a seedier side of the sex industry,” Lazenko said.

Also next week, Lazenko will advocate for her proposal to establish a four-bed crisis shelter and drop-in center for victims of human trafficking. Lazenko has applied for about $500,000 in funding from the $1.25 million in human trafficking grants established by the North Dakota Legislature and will discuss her plan with a grant committee next week.

“The future of 4her really does depend on this grant application going through, being able to hire appropriate and skilled staff to enable us to grow and provide the services that these victims need,” Lazenko said.

The center Lazenko proposes would be designed to help sex trafficking victims with immediate needs, such as medical care and a safe place to stay, while case workers help connect them with other long-term resources, likely outside of North Dakota.

Seven applications have been filed for the grant dollars, which will be awarded in February, said Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office.

The Minot Area Community Foundation has partnered with Lazenko to administer grant dollars until 4her finalizes its status as a nonprofit organization.

Ken Kitzman, president of the foundation, said the organization doesn’t often serve as a fiscal agent for other groups because it involves risk, but in this case, the organization thought the need to address human trafficking outweighed the risk.

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“If we can do that and get the program started sooner, that’s a good deal for our area and quite frankly all of western North Dakota,” Kitzman said. “We have great faith in her.”

The potential for grant funding comes at a critical time for 4her, which has seen donations drop as oil activity has slowed in the region. But Lazenko says the slowdown has not caused a decrease in sex trafficking.

“When the slowdown hit, the donations stopped,” Lazenko said. “It went from barely getting by to absolutely nothing.”

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