LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — January is proclaimed “National Human Trafficking Prevention Month,” and a Las Vegas non-profit that works to address that issue is rebuilding public trust after losing it from prior controversy.
Nikkia Wade moved to Las Vegas from Southern California nearly 18 years ago. What she arrived to was luxury, just out of her reach.
“Just the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas and being spoiled. Here, it’s a different lifestyle,” Wade said during a virtual interview Thursday afternoon. “We make more money. We don’t do much. The other girls, they have quotas they have to do.”
She spent years in Nevada’s adult entertainment industry as a dancer, escort, and brothel sex worker. But, when she tried to turn a new leaf after birthing two children, her past held her back.
“It was hard for me to get a job after leaving the industry because I did have a criminal record,” Wade said.
However, Wade today looks drastically different than her previous self. Since leaving the industry, she has graduated from dental school and works as a dental treatment coordinator, as well as becoming executive director of a service that seals criminal records.
She attributes much of her success to some sweet help: The Cupcake Girls.
The Las Vegas-based nonprofit began in 2011 and has since expanded to Portland. It connects grants, health insurance, bank accounts, legal representation, childcare, rental assistance, and other supportive services to those choosing the sex industry or forced into sex trafficking.
Additionally, its mission is to provide “confidential support” to these workers who, statistically, will likely face workplace violence. In recent years, however, that mission seemed to be blurred.
In an early January Instagram post, the nonprofit admitted that some clients reported feeling like a religious and anti-sex industry agenda was pushed onto them through leadership that had no relevant experience in the industry. The post reads, in part:
“Clients shared experiences where they felt The Cupcake Girls had been pushing them to leave the sex industry and/or into religiously affiliated referral services. There was also concern that we didn’t have sex workers or sex trafficking survivors on our board of directors or on our staff to speak into decisions the organization was making.”
This, in turn, caused “harm,” according to Executive Director Amy Merrell, who filled the position after this controversy in 2021.
“We have apologized, and I will continue to apologize,” Merrell said inside her Valley View office Thursday afternoon. “There’s a lot of hard conversations that we’re still having and we should have because we need to make sure we’re held accountable for the harms that we have caused.”
This is the nonprofit’s effort to “rebuild trust with the public.” It includes being more “intentional” with the services referred to clients, rather than choosing services they think clients need.
The Cupcake Girls additionally brought on adult film star Charlotte Stokely as the new board chair through these efforts, who Merrell said has provided insight and experiences that were missing before.
“We’re going into places and educating people on the importance of not outing folks (about their job or experiences). In a lot of cases, we’re never finding out the legal names of our program participants, because it’s so important to them that their identity is kept sacred,” Merrell said. “Domestic violence survivors, sexual assault survivors, sex workers, sex trafficking survivors: they know what they need, and we need to trust them.”
While they rebuild this trust, clients say the new changes are changing their lives. Merrell has become Wade’s mentor, the former sex worker said, who helped get her criminal record sealing service off the ground.
“Did you ever think you were going to be in this position 10, 15 years ago?” 8 News Now asked.
“No, never at all, and I never thought I’d actually have the guts to share my story,” Wade said. “No matter what, they don’t judge you, and that’s a lot of reason why women don’t speak up and they’re not comfortable and they’re embarrassed and they’re ashamed… now I am not embarrassed.”
Merrell says The Cupcake Girls are currently working with 100 clients across the nation with roughly 50 of them located in Nevada. Another 50 people are on a waitlist to receive financial aid.
In 2021, The Cupcake Girls reported $97,318 in grants that were awarded to clients through private donations.