Craig Gross is accustomed to unusual phone calls. As the founder of XXX Church, a Christian nonprofit headquartered in Southern California that fights porn addiction, "people call for the strangest reasons," he says.
But in early 2008, a particular voicemail caught his attention: A San Francisco woman called to say she loved Gross' ministry work to the sex industry and wanted to mail him a donation. Gross found it strange, given that donation instructions were posted on the XXX Church website, but he called back and provided his address.
"The next day I get this elaborate arrangement, this edible fruit basket, and a check to our nonprofit for a thousand dollars," Gross recalls.
On his next trip to San Francisco, Gross made an effort to meet his mysterious donor. Her name was Laura Robles, and her passion for helping sex workers didn't stop at an extravagant donation. "What I did know about Laura was that she did have a heart for these women," Gross remembers. He attended her wedding in August 2008, and saw similar potential for ministry in her new husband, Stephen Lasky. "They were helpful, passionate about what we did, excited — they became friends to the point of wanting to help out any way they could," he says.
The Laskys were eager to get involved in Gross' work and became members of XXX Church's advisory board. "Some people refer to it as ministry because that's their baseline. Some people just say social justice. For me, because I'm a person of faith, it's always ministry because it's part of my faith to serve," Laura says.
But the couple soon split away to form their own San Francisco-based organization, Solace SF. "I thought, 'Why should I have to travel to Vegas [where XXX Church was operating at the time] when I'm living in the mothership?'" she says.
Solace SF's goal was to provide support services to sex workers and human trafficking victims, and for about five years, that's allegedly what the organization did.
As the founder and executive director of Solace SF, Laura became the caretaker of a dying porn star, as well as a sometimes-controversial protector of sex workers in crisis. Her signature method of outreach — gifts of cupcakes and makeup handed out in strip clubs and at events — may have seemed an unusual way to connect, but her enthusiasm was undeniable and made her well-known among local sex workers.
But in February, Solace SF suddenly collapsed. Laura's fellow board members — including her husband — decided to shutter the organization following what they described in a press release as "a full audit of all activities in the organization (community support, personnel, and documentation)." The board scrubbed Solace SF's website and social media pages, and issued a press release apologizing for the "confusion and betrayal" they claimed Laura had wrought. Board chair Danny Bias told SF Weekly that a trail of broken relationships triggered the board's audit; he said he was uncertain of the true extent of Solace SF's work.
When the board severed ties with Laura Lasky, she filed for divorce and left her organization, her causes, and her home in San Francisco behind (she asked SF Weekly not to reveal her current location). In her wake, she leaves questions — about the legitimacy of her organization, about the money that flowed through it, and about the kinds of services local sex workers require. Her exile revealed a passion project contaminated by secrecy, and the contradictions of a person driven to do good for others.
According to Lasky, Solace SF traces its roots to Halloween 2008, when she and a few friends decided to visit San Francisco's strip clubs, bearing cupcakes and goodie bags filled with makeup. The idea to fuel outreach missions with sugar was borrowed from Lasky's experience at XXX Church. Gross' organization had started bringing cupcakes into strip clubs in Las Vegas, and Lasky attended some of those early outreach visits. "It's a brilliant thing Craig came up with, a brilliant, sweet introduction," Lasky says of the cupcake deliveries.
Over the course of several phone calls and emails with SF Weekly, Lasky recounted her experience ministering to sex workers and shed light on her motivations — and her departure. Her speech is sprinkled with flattering adjectives — everyone she interacts with is "brilliant," "amazing," or "wonderful" — and she's cautious not to speak ill of her critics. She frequently reiterates that she merely wanted those she came in contact with to feel loved.
When Lasky began her own outreach visits, she added gift bags of makeup to the recipe, often donated by Sephora, an international beauty company headquartered in San Francisco, where her estranged husband, Stephen, works as vice president of merchandise strategy and business development.
In San Francisco, Lasky found a community of empowered sex workers, but she thought their resources were limited. "I felt like something needed to be offered that was respectful to the choices of sex workers, something nonjudgmental and from a place of wanting to set people up for success and support," she writes.
The concept was deeply rooted in her Christian faith. "I hope [my faith] offers a reflection of something that is available to everyone — unconditional love and support without judgment."
Although Solace SF was not overtly religious — there was no mention of religion on its website — it accepted donations from religious organizations. But unlike other religious nonprofits that focus on convincing sex workers to exit the industry, Lasky says she was never the type to pray over her clients. Lasky's goal was to establish friendly relationships, so when a sex worker found herself in crisis, she would know whom to call.
As a former sex worker herself — Lasky says she worked as an escort in Arizona before leaving the industry nine years ago — the now-42-year-old had a unique understanding of the stigma sex workers can face when trying to access legal resources or health care.
What began as a passion project slowly blossomed into an organization. For years, Lasky says she made weekly cupcake deliveries to several strip clubs and was constantly seeking admission to more. "We would do coffee meet-ups, hair and makeup visits on busy nights — we did Christmas dinner backstage at a club," she recalls. "If they needed something, I would go home, hop on Google, and call them and let them know what I found. It's not like I had this long list of resources."