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Clemmie Greenlee Teaches from Her Life Lessons

Welcome to American Profiles, VOA's weekly spotlight on notable Americans who are having a positive impact on the world. This week, we meet a woman who uses the tragedies she's suffered in life to help others avoid making the same mistakes. Reporter Mike Osborne takes us to Nashville, Tennessee, to meet social activist Clemmie Greenlee.

Country music fans travel here from all over the world to enjoy a tour of Music City USA. But it's safe to say those tourists never see the poor, mean streets you visit when you spend a day with Clemmie Greenlee.

As she drives through one of Nashville's poorer neighborhoods on her way to visit a client, she explains, "Sefers is one of the most treacherous streets there is to come down after 5 [at night]. But of course, they're no more treacherous than I am, so that's why I come down it."

Then she turns to the reporter in the car with her and adds with a laugh, "But you guys can't!"

It would be hard to find a better guide to the wrong side of Nashville. For many years, Greenlee worked these streets as a prostitute, turning tricks for food and drug money. She says she turned to prostitution as a child. She had to provide for her younger siblings because their alcoholic parents could not.

"Five of us eatin' out the same plate. Five of us sleepin' in the same bed. Five of us trying to take care of each other," she recalls.

Since she was the oldest girl, she says all the responsibility fell on her.

"So it wasn't nothin' for me to be introduced to how I could make money using my sex," she says.

Greenlee became pregnant at age 12 and gave birth to her son at 13. Roderiquez followed his mother into a life of crime, a choice which led to his untimely death. He was killed when he was just 29 years old by a rival gang member.

"In the headline of the newspaper the next day it had, 'Mother's Lifestyle Leads to the Death of Her Son,'" Greenlee says. "And at first, I thought that was so cruel, because it's like 'How could ya'll say that?' but then I had to sit back, and I had to realize that they told the truth."

As she entered her forties, it dawned on Greenlee that she either had to get help or die.

"I looked around to all my friends that was in the crack house with me and I said, 'Ain't nobody ever gonna' come in here and get us. We all gonna' die in here.'"

She remembers thinking that someone had to be strong enough to get out of that situation on her own, and that someone would be her. So, at 43 years old, Greenlee began the process of turning her life around.

In 2001, she entered the Magdalene House, a two-year, faith-based recovery program for women with a history of prostitution and drug use. Today, Greenlee - along with her brother and sister-in-law - operates an advocacy program called Galaxy Star. It's designed to keep Nashville's children from making the same bad choices she did.

Greenlee also advocates for the city's homeless, a cause which frequently puts her at odds with Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. But in spite of the friction, Dean has nothing but praise for Greenlee's work.

"She's lived these experiences," he points out. "She is in many ways a nonthreatening person who puts a very positive human face on what is a very challenging circumstance, and because of that, is a much more powerful advocate for what she believes in.

"She certainly has my ear and my respect, and I'm willing to work with her on any effort."

Greenlee eventually hopes to take her life story of hope and recovery to other American cities. But for now, she's happy to be spending time on the wrong side of Nashville, the side of Music City the tourists never see.