ST. LOUIS — Christine McDonald was 15 when she was sold for $2,500 to the owner of a strip club.

The young teenager was a runaway and doing everything she could just to survive. The man who sold her was two to three times her age, someone who had lured her in with the promise of work, food and a roof over her head.

To cope with life as a stripper and later as a street prostitute, McDonald turned to drugs.

"I'd been branded like an animal, stabbed, held at gunpoint, chained to a leash in a closet," she said. With a life like that, "all you can do is pray for death," she told the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper.

After a release from prison in 2004, McDonald sought help for substance abuse and found employment. Today she serves as the director of community outreach and advocacy for Magdalene St. Louis, a new organization in St. Louis that provides a two-year residential program for women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and substance addiction.

The U.S. Department of Justice has identified St. Louis among the top 20 human trafficking jurisdictions in the country.

Tricia Roland-Hamilton, who is director of Magdalene St. Louis, said the residence, located in Old North St. Louis, is currently undergoing a gut rehab and is expected to open in early fall. The program will provide therapy, medical care, education and job training, among other services.

Roland-Hamilton said many in the St. Louis community, including women religious, have been supportive of the initiative.

The Covering House plans to open its residential facility this spring at an undisclosed location in Jefferson County, according to executive director Dedee Lhamon. The organization will provide long-term therapeutic services with the goal of helping girls connect with a loving support system, such as family or foster care.

Through their work on the front lines, Lhamon and Roland-Hamilton said that the definition of sex trafficking is much broader than the general public realizes.

No longer is it a conversation of whether someone is being trafficked or a prostitute.

"It's considered trafficking if force, coercion, manipulation takes place in any sense of the word," said Lhamon. "If you're under the age of 18, it's trafficking regardless. What I always tell people is most women don't wake up at the age of 25 and say I want to be a prostitute."

Many girls and women -- and there are even males who become victims, Lhamon added -- find themselves stuck in situations where they don't have the education or resources or the assistance of a network of family and friends.

"You don't have anybody who's going to help you," she said. "They become  addicted to drugs, since that's a means to control them. So then where do you go? How do you get out of that?"