“Drink a beer, smoke a joint. But lay off the crack, it will rot your teeth.”
That was the advice Natasha Guynes remembers receiving from her estranged father while she was high on crack and cocaine. At only 20 years old, Guynes had wanted to get as far away as possible from her family in Louisiana. Without any way to support herself, she turned to sex trafficking, and to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. At her low point, she realized that the advice her father had given her about laying off crack was "sick in itself,” said Guynes, whose drug and alcohol use landed her in a Washington, D.C., hospital over Thanksgiving weekend in 2001.
A week later, on Dec. 3 of that year, she entered a 12-step program, and this week, Guynes expects to mark her 14th year of sobriety. Since getting sober, she's graduated from college, enrolled in a master’s program, and worked her way up the ladder as a staffer on Capitol Hill for Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb. Now, she’s launching a nonprofit aimed at helping other young women.
No More Hiding
“You walk around hiding a piece of yourself and hiding from the shame,'' she told Roll Call, and "that was what I wanted to keep other women from doing, from ever going down a path that keeps them ... looking over their shoulders.''
In an exclusive interview, Guynes described her upbringing in Louisiana and Oklahoma. Her mother had her at age 17 and her father struggled with substance abuse, too. She went back and forth between her divorced parents, and at age 20 left for New York, but landed in D.C. “It was as far as my money could take me,” she said.
With no income, plan, or support network, “I was working as an escort. There is no good word for it. It is what it is,” she said. “It’s a survival mechanism. Not long after I started working as an escort, I got heavily involved in drugs and alcohol. I said, ‘What else do I have to lose?’”
Within a year, she was living in a homeless shelter. “I was the youngest person; I’d just turned 21 and was there with a bunch of women who had been to jail. I was fortunate not to have a record, but it could have really sent me the opposite direction.”
The 12-step program changed all that. ”I met some of the most amazing people who literally held my hand and helped me walk through the fear,” said Guynes. “I had someone who would call me and talk me out of bed. I really needed that support."
She graduated from Trinity Washington University at age 26, then spent a year in AmeriCorps and interned for the Democratic National Committee in the fall of 2006. A manager there encouraged her to apply for positions on Capitol Hill, and she got a job as a staff assistant for Reid, working her way up to front office manager. She later worked as administrative director for Nelson, and for Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and the Commission on Long Term Care. The entire time, she kept her past a secret.
Time for a Change
Despite her success, she kept thinking, “What good is it if I get clean and sober and change my life around if I can’t do anything with it and help the next person?”
Finally, in April, Guynes felt the time had come to make a change. She put together a business plan, started meeting with people and launched Her Resiliency, a non-profit for women from the age of 18 to 25.
That's not only when her life unraveled, but an age at which many traditional support services are unavailable. “When you turn 18, you think, 'I’m an adult!' And you wake up and you’re still a child. Your brain is not developed,” she said. “This is the age range where [people] can go right or wrong. And we want to help make sure they go on a path to self-sufficiency and thriving.”
Guynes describes Her Resiliency as a “strength-based organization” that provides “trauma-informed care,” that helps women find a path forward that builds on their strengths.
Guynes has reached out to the Metropolitan Police Department, hoping to intervene before a young woman gets arrested and winds up with a criminal record. “Once you have a record, you can’t get out of the cycle of poverty,” she explained.
With a police record, many people aren’t able to find a job or housing, and then become even more desperate without a place to live or an income to support themselves. They become "trapped by the circumstances of their life,” as Guynes puts it.
“I said, 'Please don’t arrest these women. Send them to us,'” Guynes said. “The saving grace for me is that I never had a record. If I had a record, I would never have gotten to work for Sens. Reid or Nelson. Who knows what may have happened?”
Her former bosses have been supportive. Reid's office has reached out to find ways to be helpful. In a statement to Roll Call, Reid described Guynes as just as impressive now as when she was a staffer. Nelson has written letters on Guynes’ behalf. In July, Guynes reached out to him about starting the organization, and he and his staff have pledged to help.
“It’s an amazing feeling and confidence booster,” Guynes said of their support.
Guynes is in the process of securing office space. The organization has a seven-member board of directors advising the group, which include clinical social workers who assist with programming, and other former Hill staffers who help with outreach and fundraising.
More than 70 people, including several local government officials, attended a November fundraiser in at Hemphill Fine Arts Center in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood.
Guynes hasn’t spoken to her father since she was 20. He did not respond to multiple phone messages left in an attempt to reach him for this story.
Her mother, Peggy Williamson, said she knows about Her Resiliency and is proud of Guynes.
"Everyone’s perception of their childhood is different. She's my daughter and I love her; she really is the most resourceful girl," Williamson said, and "has always been a go-getter." She recalls that when Guynes watched the television show "COPS" as a kid, she always seemed to focus on the perpetrator's children. If she saw a woman arrested, she'd say, "That mother has to feed her family."