Michelle Grunder describes her life as a choice: Go deeper into darkness or live in the light.
At 44, she’s a 2018 graduate of Edmonds Community College. She’s a mother of six, and a grandmother, living on a quiet street in Lake Stevens. She is also a recovering addict and a survivor of sex trafficking.
“My children are proud of me, what I’ve overcome. I know my voice is going to give power to others,” Grunder said. “I’m using my hope, my life, my truth.”
In January, she was honored by the Washington State Association of College Trustees with a Transforming Lives Award. Honorees are current or former community or technical college students. Of 34 nominated, Grunder was one of five to win the award and $500, and to speak Jan. 21 at a ceremony in Olympia.
At home Wednesday, she spoke of her past, at times struggling with emotions.
“There was childhood sexual abuse,” said Grunder, who grew up in California. By 18 or 19, she was using methamphetamine. “The drugs came first,” she said. Introduced to the sex trade, she was around gang members in Sacramento.
“I was groomed to pull in other girls,” Grunder said. She described being beaten as she helped one 16-year-old escape.
Through violence and drugs, a man controlled her life. Someone else, who had “bought me for the night,” helped her get away, she said. “Very few can get out of it,” Grunder said.
By 2008 she was in Washington. She went through drug court, where she was helped by Judge Ellen Fair and Judge Janice Ellis in Snohomish County Superior Court. Grunder has been to rehab, and for a time her children were placed in her sister’s care. “My sister is my greatest hero,” she said.
She attends a 12-step program. From mentors there, she learned that recovery is more than clean time. “I’m working on the inside,” she said. “I know this is a disease.”
Grunder now works with Peoria Home, an Everett-based residential recovery program for women who’ve been exploited through prostitution, sex trafficking and addiction.
Paula Newman-Skomski is the founder and board president of Peoria Home, which now has three residents. Newman-Skomski is also a family nurse practitioner at the Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse.
She has known Grunder about four years. “When I first met her she was pretty broken. She has made tremendous progress,” Newman-Skomski said. “She’s our survivor consultant” at Peoria Home. “She’s also become a very good friend.”
Going to Edmonds Community College was another life-changer. “School taught me to be a better mother, and how to be a person in society,” Grunder said. She earned an associate’s degree in health and human services and had a 3.77 grade point average. She has worked for Service Alternatives and hopes to return to EdCC for an applied bachelor’s degree in child, youth and family studies.
At EdCC, she acquired a computer and received services through the federally funded TRIO program, which assists low-income, first-generation college students.
Grunder appreciates Christina Coiro, a health and human services instructor at the college. “She used her counseling skills to help me discover and identify my passion for prevention,” Grunder wrote in an essay published in an award booklet by the Washington State Association of College Trustees.
When she started college, Grunder wanted to be a chemical dependency counselor. Along the way, that changed.
“I want to reach women and particularly young teens and girls before they need addiction counseling — before the gangs try to traffic and profit off of them. I want to prevent this from happening, not treat it,” Grunder wrote. “Faith has shown me that as deep as I could go into the darkness is as far as I could go into the light. I have a dark and a light side, and I get to choose.”
Newman-Skomski sees that light side. Grunder is “a great mentor for women trying to exit the sex trade,” she said.
“It’s not a Third World problem. It’s a reality, right here in our community,” Newman-Skomski said.
According to estimates on the Peoria Home website, “around 200 women and girls are sold for sex every night in Snohomish County,” and 85 percent of women and girls in prostitution are controlled by pimps.
Grunder has lived in that darkness. “I’m building this new life,” she said. “It’s by God’s grace I’m here.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peoria Home fundraiser
The fifth annual Beacon of Hope Dinner and Auction, a fundraiser to support Peoria Home, is scheduled for 5 p.m. March 16 in the Edward D. Hansen Conference Center at Angel of the Winds Event Center, 2000 Hewitt Ave., Everett. The nonprofit is a residential recovery home for women in Snohomish County who have been exploited through prostitution, addiction and sex trafficking. Event tickets are $65 (ticket sales end Sunday), available at: www.peoriahome.org/