NASHVILLE | The Rev. Becca Stevens of Thistle Farms does more than take in abused and addicted down-and-out women and feed them. She teaches them to fish.
In classic biblical tradition, the treatment program of this Earth-mother and Episcopal priest has helped women from across the country heal from their lives of horror and become an integral part of a growing business that sells handcrafted body and spa products across the nation. Their latest contract puts them inside mega-grocer Whole Foods.
Women who used to pound the pavement as prostitutes and drug addicts have been reborn over the last few years as Mrs. Stevens' program first nurtures them back to health in mind and body. Then they are taught the value of teamwork, responsibility and dedication as they run their own business. Much like their namesake, the tough little thistle, they have persevered to survive.
"There's this myth in the criminal justice system, that these women ultimately will manipulate you, they'll use you and relapse and should be written off, that they aren't worth saving," says Mrs. Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms.
"Here, watching them doing the work, gives me permission to be hopeful again. I look around at them and go 'Oh, my goodness, women recover" says Mrs. Stevens, 45, as the ladies of Thistle Farms work around her packing boxes and affixing labels to jars and bottles.
"We see women who seem at first like they are half-dead just resurrect. … Here, we want to love them back … and I think they learn more from mercy than from justice."
Many of the women in the group praise Mrs. Stevens as saving them from certain death. They say they are trying to stay focused on the program that they call God-sent after years of turning tricks, taking drugs and tearing apart their families.
As they gather in a meditation circle before each work day, they acknowledge a higher power. A misty rain falls on a chilly morning as they hold hands in a circle, say the Lord's Prayer and then heed the call of the enthusiastic floor manager: "C'mon y'all. Let's work."
They clear the room in a small white donated house behind St. George's Church in the upscale Belle Meade section of Nashville. In different rooms, they get down to business, fashioning sea-salt scrubs, lip balms and scented hand-poured candles, which fill the house with a comforting, peaceful aroma.
Cynthia Marlow Foster, 41, serves as floor manager at Thistle Farms. She graduated from the program in 2005 after a life filled with drugs, abuse and violence. At 16, her mom abandoned her family, leaving Mrs. Foster with two kids of her own and pregnant with her third child.
"I used moonshine at age 5, weed at 6. I was molested when I was 8. When I was 9 and a half, my dad died in a jailhouse fire," she said of her battered childhood. "I was angry at the world. I blamed people for all these things that went wrong in my life."
Mrs. Foster walked out on her own three children as her addiction took hold. "I left my kids by the side of the road. I walked out of their life just like my mom did. I lost all their lives after that."
At age 37, while working as a prostitute, she entered the Magdalene program and became sober. After her graduation, she continued working at Thistle Farms, where she serves as mentor and manager helping other women confront their past.
"When I was an addict, I used to pray to God that he would send to me a man who would respect me and have my best wishes at heart," she said of the turnaround her life has taken. She has since married a Veterans Affairs hospital maintenance worker, whom she praises for "getting me on the path with God."
She also reconnected with her mother and her grown children and says she now considers them her friends. "I love my mom today. She did the best that she could," Mrs. Foster says of her growing acceptance that the bad days of her life led her to the good days she enjoys now.
She is studying to take her Graduate Education Diploma test and has published a book about her life on the streets and in recovery.
"I used to curse at God, and he said, 'Why not you?'" she said. "I have a vision now to help younger kids. I don't want what happened to me to happen to another generation behind. The program wasn't hard. The life I was living was hard. There were many days I could have gotten killed. But what I found out here is that we are all gifts — pearls — and just because bad things happened to us doesn't mean we are bad people."
Carolyn Davis, 46, works with Mrs. Foster and will complete her own program of recovery in October. After 17 months at the Magdalene house and Thistle Farms, she admits that living with other women as they all confront their addiction is a challenge, but says Narcotics Anonymous has helped show her tolerance and patience, not only with herself but with others.
"My life was a living hell," she says of working as a prostitute and stealing to make ends meet. Growing up in Columbia, Tenn., her mother was an alcoholic, and she was raped by a couple when she was 13, she said. She came to Nashville from her small town looking for a bigger life, and said she was soon "befriended" by a pimp and raped again. After that, she said, the shame, guilt and pain led her to addiction.
"I want to stop the myth," she says. "My drug addiction did not lead to prostitution. Prostitution led to the drug addiction."
A friend on the streets gave her a card with information about the Magdalene program and she entered knowing it would save her life. "I had been up all night smoking crack and drinking," in the hours before she turned herself over for help.
Now, healthy and refocused — she was married on Valentine's Day — Mrs. Davis, who works as Thistle Farms' store manager, is looking ahead to a life as an evangelist.
"I've got a testimony," she says with a broad smile, her brown eyes clear and beaming with hope. "People out there need to hear it. I was one of the biggest junkies and crackheads there was. But I want to share with people that there is help and grace and mercy."
Just as Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Foster did, all the women of Thistle Farms learn their skills living within the organization's two-year Magdalene program, which houses and supports them as they transition to a sober life. They are referred to the much-in-demand Magdalene residences by family, charitable groups, probation officers and friends, some arriving from jail stints with felony convictions on their records.
Once they are off the streets and well enough through medical care and intense therapy to look ahead at a real future, they have paying jobs waiting across town at Thistle Farms. There they learn skills like using a computer, public speaking, making business pitches, along with packaging, inventory and marketing.
For three days a week, they work hands-on in their own company, doing everything from pouring the wax for candles, shipping the products and chasing down new accounts.
Neither the Magdalene program nor nonprofit Thistle Farms (www.thistlefarms.org) takes federal or state money. They operate in faith on grants and the generosity of donors along with the small profit the handmade products bring in.
Currently, the products are available in stores in 21 states and the District of Columbia and also online. Most recently, the ladies received a contract to sell their wares from Whole Foods, a testament to the quality of their goods and growth potential of their business.
"There is no part of the stimulus package that will be coming here," jokes Marlei Olson, a former country music industry executive who handles the marketing and publicity outreach for the Magdalene and Thistle Farms programs. But by being independent from outside control, the dual recovery and business programs can be run how their creators see fit as the model for success continues to evolve.
The treatment utilizes a 12-step plan of addiction recovery, with an intensive outpatient program that is individualized for each woman. They live together in group homes where they cook their own meals and attend classes and therapy sessions along with working at their business three days a week. The program embraces spirituality, but no particular faith, acting on a mantra that says "freedom starts with healing and love can save lives."
"We are not a religious organization," says Mrs. Stevens, who oversees her own congregation at Vanderbilt University and who is known for preaching barefoot. "There is no converting here. You don't have to believe a certain way and none of these women belong to my church."
Mrs. Stevens, who was sexually abused as a child by an elder in her church, said she noticed other women who were hurting and similarly abused in Nashville, as they worked Dickerson Road and other seedier areas. She wanted to do something to get them away from lives of violence and trauma, so she founded the Magdalene program in 1997. Today, with support from the Nashville creative and civic community, it has grown to include five recovery houses that took in residents from eight states last year. The model for treatment has become so popular that it currently has a waiting list of more than 70 — and rising.
"That's what gave me a heart for a lot of women walking the streets," Mrs. Stevens says of her own trauma. "I understand that cycle. I get that for them, the world is crazy, you question authority. Drugs are a great mediation and sex is a great drug.
"We're not just about helping a subculture of women — we are about changing the culture itself. Prostitution … is not a victimless crime. That's a myth, and there is a huge cost to women. Thirty percent of these women have Hepatitis C or are HIV positive. It's a victim-filled crime, and I think our culture must come to understand that you cannot buy and sell women."
Carolyn Snell, a volunteer at Thistle Farms for the past seven months, says the key to its success is the time it allows women to recover. By keeping them for two years, rather than 30 or 60 days like some conventional treatment programs, the women can deal with their past as they look ahead to the future.
"You can't just rush that" timing for recovery, says Ms. Snell, who has worked as a tour manager for well-known country stars. "Their program is much longer than any program available now."
Also key to the program is optimism that lives can turn around, says Donna Grayer, who serves as house manager for the Magdalene program. She helps guide the women in the day-to-day concerns, not only with sobriety but with real issues like dealing with children, courts and probation.
Often, putting their lives back together can be overwhelming, she says. They have a fear of succeeding, a fear of "Can I maintain this?"
"I believe it's good to have a vision for people who don't have a vision for themselves. We don't judge women. We show them a lot of respect. We're not an authoritative program, but rather we create an environment where women feel at home and can be themselves."
Jason Frazier, a case manager at the Magdalene house, says the women have lots of contact hours with staff and are kept busy attending classes and going to meetings even as they are given freedom to come and go as they please. Through the generosity of the community, they get passes to art museums, concerts and cultural events and also receive visits by artists who are central to Nashville's music and artistic community. Mrs. Stevens' program benefits by the connection to the industry from her husband Marcus Hummon, a well-known songwriter who penned the Rascal Flatts hit "Bless the Broken Road."
In addition to the cultural exposure, the Magdalene women are encouraged to express themselves and to challenge others, speaking out as they are empowered that their feelings and opinions matter — all with the goal of building them up so they can live again, Mr. Frazier says, noting that the mental and physical overhaul often produces physical results.
"They do change, physically you see changes — wrinkles soften, postures straighten, scars are harder to see," Mr. Frazier observes. "A lot of people look back to where they were when they first started and the changes are amazing."
The stories of the Magdalene and Thistle Farms programs are now available in a book, "Find Your Way Home — Words From the Street, Wisdom From the Heart," available online, including at Amazon.com. It was conceived by Mrs. Stevens but is a communally written book that was edited by volunteers and inspired by the stories of women involved in the program.
It includes chapters like: "Think of the Stranger as God," "Stand on New Ground and Believe You Are Not Lost," "Remember You Have Been in the Ditch" and "Consider the Thistle." Central in the introduction, penned by Mrs. Stevens, is the admonition that women around the world have been sexually abused and it must stop. "We have residents from all over the United States and Latin American and have met with women from … Russia, Ecuador, Botswana, Rwanda, Sudan and Thailand and all tell similar stories," she writes.
"If you are reading these words from the bunk in a prison cell, take comfort in knowing that part of this book may have been written by a woman who sat in that same prison," she adds. "If you are reading these words in kinder circumstances but know a bit about your own brokenness, we welcome you into our circle."
Mrs. Stevens, chatting over tea, is quick to allow, however, that the program is not about her, but rather everyone, from the volunteers and donors to the business community and the city, which all put their collective heart into making the healing work.
Even as the road for many of these women has been broken, there are real lessons in the thistle that can't be overlooked, says Mrs. Foster, a program graduate. As a flower, the lowly thistle is a survivor. It defiantly fights its way through the crevices in broken concrete to survive, much as the women of Thistle Farms exhibit a powerful determination to rise above their harsh environments of prostitution, drugs and abuse.
Even between the cracks, she says, if you look hard enough, there is beauty that begs for a chance to be seen — and to shine.
"Healing is in the tears," she explains, as her eyes fill up at the notion. "As long as you are crying, it's like rain. You are watering the flowers."
Particularly, the thistle.
By Mark Mix
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