MILWAUKEE — Michele Kasper, a client of Franciscan Peacemakers for nine years, is part of the traveling team that takes its Gifts for the Journey soap and bath products to parishes for weekend sales.

Kasper, soon to coordinate production and inventory control for Gifts for the Journey, can be an anchor of hope for other women.

Like many women involved in prostitution, Kasper, 37, was sexually abused as a child. She described a dysfunctional childhood in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek. She said she was often in unsafe situations, having to fend for herself as young as age 5.

Despite a learning disability, she graduated from high school and attended Carroll College (now University) in Wisconsin for three years before dropping out. She landed what she described as a good job as a program manager at an electronics company, but was laid off in 2003.

From there, her life spiraled out of control. She tried crack cocaine and before she knew it, blew through $60,000 of her 401(k) plan "and when that ran out, I turned to the streets," she said. "It wasn't my plan to smoke, but one time I tried it and all the pain went away," she said of her crack use.

She often encountered Carmen Mojica and Deacon Steve Przedpelski, respectively, the social worker and director of Franciscan Peacemakers, on the streets, but rejected their offers of help.

"They kept after me, kept coming back and tried to get me sober," she said, and finally last July, she called Deacon Przedpelski in desperation.

Even though he had plans with his wife to attend a concert that day, Kasper said he agreed to meet with her at McDonald's.

"His wife said I was more important than any concert," said Kasper, describing how, for the first time, she felt cared for and loved.

Years of therapy have followed, Kasper said. With the help of Franciscan Peacemakers, she now lives in her own apartment, with her dog, Francis. For the first time, she is at peace in her life.

As she wrapped soaps recently, along with Mojica and volunteer Joy Stadther, Kasper said she made it through the challenges in her life with the support of Franciscan Peacemakers. She called Deacon Przedpelski and Mojica her family.

"I went through a lot of bad things there, but I made it through and kept coming here and they encouraged and supported me through everything," she said.

Kasper said she is inspired by people like Stadther, a member of St. Richard Parish in Racine, who is enrolled in the lay ministry program at Cardinal Stritch University.

"Just seeing her volunteering is therapy for me," said Kasper of Stadther. "Seeing what kind of person she is and the things she is doing with her life. I've never had really good people in my life and she is helping me to strive to have that."