On a rainy Monday night in Colonialtown, Phyllis Gamber is out with some friends. She starts a fresh pack of cigarettes on the outdoor patio of Houlihan's on East Colonial Drive and gets ready to talk to a reporter about her life. The stone tables outside are still wet with fat drops of condensation that linger from a passing thunderstorm – a reminder that summer is in full swing in Florida.
As appetizers and drinks begin to arrive, the 49-year-old Gamber says that she's currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in social work. Much of her time these days is spent either in class, or at her job as a server at the Rainforest Café in Fort Lauderdale. But just a little more than 10 years ago, she was spending most of her time on a different Orlando thoroughfare – one just as busy as Colonial Drive, but notorious more for its seedy traffic than its steady stream of consumers headed to Best Buys and Olive Gardens.
In her previous life, Phyllis Gamber was a sex worker. For 20 years she lived on Orange Blossom Trail, and like a lot of women who live life on "the Trail," as it's often called, she struggled with addiction and the unfortunate circumstances that surrounded her lifestyle.
"Every day out there is a test," Gamber says when asked about her past. "I knew I had a family that cared very much for me. I tried to hide my addiction, but they knew. They always knew. I was ashamed. I was out there, just stuck."
Initially Gamber was just another student. She was studying at West Virginia University, but in her junior year, she attempted to transfer to the University of Central Florida. Her transcripts didn't arrive in time for her to start during her intended semester, and with nothing but time on her hands, she made some friends. She started to party with them. She never made it to UCF. Instead, she found herself sucked deeper and deeper into addiction.
Over the years she spent working Orange Blossom Trail as a prostitute, Gamber developed a pretty significant record – according to documents filed with the Orange County Clerk of Courts between 1990 and 2002, she was arrested repeatedly for possession of controlled substances, prostitution and other crimes.
In 2004, two warrants for her arrest were issued after she failed to appear in court twice – once in Orange County, and again in Seminole County – and Gamber was picked up once again. That arrest turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to her, she says.
"When they caught me, I knew I was going to jail," she says. "But I knew I'd never use cocaine again. I was drained physically and emotionally. I was just done."
A three-year stint at the Hollywood Work Release Facility mandated she remain sober, at least while she was there, but according to Gamber, her determination to change was what helped the new lifestyle stick.
"I wasn't willing to go back." she says. "The thing that gave me the most incentive was seeing the girls before me that I knew and had known for a long time get clean and change their lives. And I always told myself, if they can do it, I can too."
On this rainy night at Houlihan's, Gamber is celebrating the fact that not only has she been able to do it – she's been able to help others who have as well. She is the founder of an informal meetup group that calls itself the Trailblazers, people who once barely scraped by on OBT but who've managed to put that in the past.
Once a year these rehabilitated former addicts and sex workers come together in Orlando, from all over the United States, to swap stories, talk about their experiences and just see one another again.
Stacey Davis has been coming to Trailblazers meetups since the first one, which took place five years ago at this same Houlihan's.
"This is a family," he says. Davis has known Gamber since the 1990s, when they both lived on the Trail. He remembers several of the other Trailblazers from those days, too. Even before they all got clean, he says, they looked out for one another as best they knew how.
"Christmas, Easter, we were sitting on bus benches together," he says. "Hotel rooms, we'd tell 'em: 'Listen I got a room, we don't have nothing else. You can come lay on the floor if you need to. We're a family.'"
The group has grown every year since its first meeting in 2009, when five people, all of whom were connected in some way on the Trail, gathered to catch up; on this evening, there are at least 21 people swapping stories and reconnecting.
The first "meeting" was actually more of an impromptu lunch with friends, Gamber says. She had come to Orlando from her home in Fort Lauderdale to pick up Davis, her boyfriend, from the Orlando Bridge Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Program. She and Davis had both spent much of the previous two decades addicted to crack cocaine. He was offered a term at the Bridge in lieu of jail time, and he accepted. This year's Trailblazer meeting marks his sixth year of sobriety. Now he lives in Fort Lauderdale with Gamber, and he's employed full-time at a restaurant there. He says that Gamber has been significantly supportive of his sobriety. In turn, the couple has tried to offer their support to others who feel like they don't have anyone in their lives to help them get clean and be safe.
"If you want to get clean, we tell you come on," Davis says. "Whatever it takes, we're gonna show you there's a way."
Every year, there are more people who do want to get clean and they discover the support group by word of mouth. Some of them come to the Trailblazers for support. "There's new people here every year. It's amazing, " Gamber says. "Some of these people I don't even know."
And on this evening, they share their success stories, which reflect both the pain of the past and promise of the future.
There's Tricia, who after a lifetime of mental, physical and sexual abuse, found herself on the Trail in search of a crack fix. (At her request, her last name has been withheld.) Today she's six years sober. She's a devout Christian who does speaking engagements and ministers at prisons as often as she is permitted.
Interestingly, Tricia is limited in the amount of help she's been allowed to offer to people who are currently living the life she escaped. She was once a speaker for a prison ministry at Orange County Jail on 33rd Street in Orlando, she says, but the jail enforces a policy requiring background checks for people who do work there. Even though it has been 10 years since her last arrest, Tricia says she's barred from spreading her message of redemption to the inmates there due to her record.
Then there is Alisa Arndt: After a relationship turned sour in 1999, a young Arndt turned to the streets; simply put, she says she had nowhere else to go. After spending some time living in the recesses along Westmoreland Drive, she gravitated to a small motel on Orange Blossom Trail where she spent 10 years battling addiction. News that she was expecting led her to clean up. In 2009, she found herself at the doors of the Orlando Coalition for the Homeless. There, she found education, aid and opportunity. The First Steps Program for Women there helped Arndt earn her GED, and the childcare program ensured her daughter had somewhere safe to go while she attended class.
On May 7, Arndt's husband and daughter watched from the audience as she received her master's degree in social work. She eventually hopes to become a substance abuse counselor.
Despite her successes, Arndt says her past haunts her in unexpected ways. She can't vote, for instance, because she's an ex-offender – something she is fighting to change at the state level.
"I'm big into advocacy," she says. "I've been trying to work on a bill dealing with civil rights restoration for ex-offenders. Nonviolent ex-offenders."
During the past legislative session, Arndt and two classmates went to Tallahassee to support two bills that would promote the reintegration of nonviolent offenders into society. Neither bill made enough progress during this past session, but the matter will be raised again next year.
Despite the lack of headway this year, Arndt is determined to keep trying. "I'm all about rehabilitation," she says. "I'm really passionate about it, I want to help people; that's why I went into social work."
As Gamber is quick to point out, people work hard to pull themselves out of lives of addiction, crime and pain, and many who end up working the Trail once led very different lives.
"There's a lot of things that people don't know about the people out there on the Trail," she says. "There's a lot of very educated people out there who just unfortunately have fallen on very hard times."
She talks about a young woman she knew who traversed the trail at night, barely out of her scrubs from her shift as a registered nurse, as well as a college grad with a corporate position at Martin Marietta Materials, which deteriorated over time. "It started off with the prostitution," she says. "First it was once a month, then it was every other weekend. Next thing you know, he's around more often, it's Monday morning and he's calling out of work." And it's not just a few people who've fallen victim to the Trail's empty promises. The Orange County Sheriff's Department says that during 2015, 5 percent of the felony drug and prostitution charges in the entire county came straight from the Trail.
Not everyone who tries to get off the Trail and get clean succeeds – and not all reintegrate into society. Even many of those in attendance at this year's meetup have lengthy rap sheets, and some may still struggle.
Which is why the Trailblazers is such an important support system for its members. People who've lived on the Trail have all experienced a desolation that only others who've been there really know, they say. They see people like Gamber, Davis and Arndt as a sign of hope as they try to find their way back – these people who've gotten clean and stayed that way are the trailblazers, leaving a path back to society for others to find.
As the scene at Houlihan's unfolds, Arndt's laughter punctuates the atmosphere in contagious bursts. Children skirt the edges of the patio, playing abbreviated games of tag and snatching up appetizers from anyone unfortunate enough to look the other way.
Gamber is animated. She can barely finish the interview, as Trailblazers new and old all rush to greet her. She bounces from one guest to the other, sharing memories of good times and bad, of life lived, of friends long gone who weren't lucky enough to find their way out. The whole evening is like one big reminder that it's really never too late to rejoin the party.
If only everyone could see these people as they are tonight, rather than as who they used to be, Gamber says. They wouldn't see so many former prostitutes, drug addicts and criminals – they'd just see people working to get by and trying to live meaningful lives.
"It's difficult," she says. "Because people see you as what you were before. They just see the outside. They don't know about the inside."