A Healing Rhythm
Jennifer is a force and one of the first people to greet you when you visit Thistle Farms. Given every reason to hate love, she is healing. She and many others.
"Imagine that, me—a heroin junkie, a prostitute, in and out of jails and psych wards—standing here and being a part of something that is much bigger than all of us," says Jennifer. "It’s family. And it’s all races, it’s all colors, it’s all religions, but it’s under the umbrella of love and unity and tragedy and joy. That’s standing together—and it’s going global."
Photograph by Erica Baker
Nestled in south Nashville, you will find a gritty, healing people in a tenaciously loving place; intentionally inclusive, hope-bent, and trauma-informed. They call themselves thistle farmers—nurturing beauty out of batteredness, wholeness out of fracture, recovery out of addiction, and love out of despair. Truly one of its kind, Thistle Farms is designed specifically for women survivors of trafficking: one part sanctuary community, one part enterprise.
This place and space is anchored by a collection of 24 principles written by survivors, staff, and volunteers years ago, including lessons like ‘walk behind’, ‘think of the stranger as God,’ and ‘take the longer path.’ “We kind of combined the 12-step program with the Benedictine model and came up with our 24 spiritual practices to guide us in letting go of all the stuff that really doesn't matter and holding onto the stuff that matters a lot, a lot. And I think trying to love the whole world a person at a time matters the most,” says Founder Becca Stevens.
Photograph by Erica Baker
The principles are like disciplines that the community practices in order to learn how to live fully, freely, as whole people able to offer unconditional love to one another. Further, the principles offer rhythm and ritual for the group, which CEO Hal Cato explains is a very important aspect of nurturing a trauma-informed culture. “We start the day—whether it's a Wednesday big community meeting or the other days that are a bit smaller—we stand up, circle up, light a candle, and some will do a reflection. It gets people into a rhythm, and they know what to expect,” he explains.
This particular Wednesday, I and about thirty other visitors are invited to sit in on the morning circle. A single candle sits lit in the center of the room. One woman, a survivor staff-member, opens the gathering by reading a principle about forgiveness—sharing why this resonates for her on this particular day. Her words sink deep, I can see it in the empathic smiles and nodding heads around me. One-by-one, a dozen other women share with shocking vulnerability about their struggles—forgiveness for the man, forgiveness for their kids, forgiveness for their own selves. It’s the intimacy known well in addiction recovery circles and they are kind to welcome us in.
Women at Thistle Farms are provided with housing, food, healthcare, therapy, education and employment. Much like an alumni network, it is a lifelong community of support, and the women have continued access to counseling, education and emergency financial assistance.
“Somebody lit the candle for me,” remembers Katrina Robertson, National Sales Director of Thistle Farms. “We light the candle every morning to be that light for that lady who does not know that there's a way out. We want to be a light for her and show her that there is a way out. We light the candle for the lady who has come to this community and, for whatever reason, she wasn't able to stay. We want to always be that light for her so that she finds her way back home.”
Find Your Way Home
“You can rape women, you can make them refugees, you can get them addicted as a child. You can jail them. You can prostitute them. You can beat the hell out of them. But you can't kill hope in them,” says Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms.
Becca was ordained in the Episcopal tradition at age 26. As a woman whose own experience with sexual abuse as a child started in the church, she determined to especially care for women who have survived trauma and consequently trafficking, prostitution, drug addiction, and homelessness. She envisioned a home where women survivors could live for two years with their every physical, emotional, and spiritual need met—at no financial cost to them. More than twenty years later, Thistle Farms has helped hundreds of women restore their lives to health and stand up firmly on their feet with financial independence and stability.
Founder Becca Stevens / Photograph by Erica Baker
“I didn't want Thistle Farms ever to be a religious organization. That was a big deal to me,” Becca says. “I didn't want this to be a treatment center. I didn't want it to be a shelter. I didn't want it to be a halfway house. All those things felt like trappings, but if we could just kind of keep it pure, like a community, you know, that would be enough. And through that women would find their education, their treatment, their shelter, their religious life how they would want to do it. All our job would be is, ‘here's the community, and here's home.’”
Katrina was one of the first women to enter and graduate from the Magdalene program, to find her way home, so they say.
Katrina was one of the first women to enter and graduate from the Magdalene program, to find her way home, as they say at Thistle Farms.
“One thing that I remember about the program team," says Katrina, "was that they didn't say to me, ‘What did you do?’ Donna Grayer, she said, ‘Katrina, what happened to you? Will you tell me what happened?’ I started thinking nobody had ever asked me that before. Nobody had ever asked me what made me go use, what made me act that way... I had a good childhood until my stepfather molested me. He told me I was a bad girl, and that I better not tell anybody, and they wouldn't believe me anyway, and I was gonna get in trouble. That was my first sex act. That changed everything. I believed him at age 11, and I carried that for years. I carried that and acted out in the streets and in jail and everywhere I could. So that was the most profound moment for me, when she asked, ‘Katrina, what happened to you?’”
“We always ask women to draw their hope. Just draw it,” says Becca. “It was Katrina that... when she came in, and her daughter, Ebony, was with her and was whispering in her ear, ‘Draw a house, mama, draw a house.’ And Katrina sat there, she had been through so much, and she just sat there with her little girl and drew a beautiful house. And it was like, ‘Oh my God, if she can hope that, we can all get there.”
It’s been about 13 years since Katrina drew that house. Today, her daughter Ebony works on the sales team alongside her mother, managing corporate accounts (like Whole Foods!).
Katrina Robertson with her daughter Ebony / Photograph by Erica Baker
I ask Katrina what it feels like now, to be working side-by-side with her daughter and the tears are instant. She swallows hard, and manages: “I never thought, and I don't think that Ebony ever thought, that she would see me in this light, or doing as good as I'm doing—let alone working with me here, working side-by-side with her mom. She was why I just kept fighting, relapse, after relapse, after relapse. I'm ever grateful for this community, because they gave her her mom back, and they didn't just give her back any old mom, they gave her a whole mother. A whole woman with lots of experience.”
Thistle Farms is first and foremost a healing place. It's these stories—Katrina’s, Ebony’s, Jennifer’s—that the Thistle Farms community makes possible and that you and I invest in when we visit the café or purchase their products. The culture builds relationship, while the products they make build sustainability and enable life-giving independence.
“After we opened up the house and we'd been going for a while, we knew that it was like, ‘This is cruel.’ It's cruel to say you can have healing, here's your new teeth, here's all your information about your finances. Here's everything you need, and then you never get a job because you've been on the street since you were 14,” says Becca.
Make and Scale
The first Thistle Farms product was a candle. The wax was melted and mixed with essential oils in cooking pots borrowed from the little chapel on the Vanderbilt University campus where Becca was chaplain at the time. “The idea was to make something that we could sell easily, wasn't too complicated, but had some theological grounding. So light made sense, and healing for the body,” recalls Becca.
"I haven't served a woman, I don't believe, in 21 years, who hasn't been raped. So I think it makes sense to make something really healing for bodies. That's what we did."
Becca Stevens, Founder & President, Thistle Farms
When the pots started making the student spaghetti dinners taste like lavender and lemongrass, they knew it was time to get their own equipment. “We made enough money to keep going and people loved it—they loved the idea of women buying cars and renting homes and getting their kids back. So, it's grown. It's grown crazy.”
Proof of that is the manufacturing operation itself, which has evolved dramatically since those early days of chapel pots and pitchers. Now operating out of a large warehouse behind the café, Thistle Farms has diversified its product line and substantially improved production efficiency. For example, when hand-pouring candles the team was producing 200 candles a day. Having made significant investments in equipment, they are now able to produce about 1,500 per day.
Residents and graduates of the residential program are employed in one of Thistle Farms' social enterprises. They learn new job skills and make a living wage to support themselves, and each product is hand-crafted by women survivors.
Tianja Johnson, manufacturing manager and a 2015 graduate, remembers: “We used to have people that labeled product one by one. If we had to label maybe 100 hand soaps it took at least three to four hours. But now we have a label machine, so it takes about 15 minutes.”
Improvements to workflow efficiency are critical because it’s not just candles and soap they’re cranking out, it’s a full line of home and body care items, which Tianja rattles off effortlessly: “Body balm, body butter, body lotion, body wash. We make hand lotion, hand soap. We make bath salts in bulk (a 10-pound bag) and in 8-ounce jars. We make healing oils. We make diffused oils. We make lip balms. We make tea—a Moringa tea and a Hope tea. We make linen spray, room sprays, shave gel. We make all different types of kits. We have a healing oil kit. We have a Reenergize Kit that consists of a body wash, an 8-ounce eucalyptus-mint bath soak, a 16-ounce body wash. It has a lip balm, and it has a 3-ounce shave gel. We also make a Jet Set with 2-ounce body washes, as well. We have a 1.5-ounce body lotion, and we also have a 1.5-ounce shave gel. And a lip balm also goes into that kit, which is great for travel, great for the purse…”
“Our products are not made in China by some machine, they are made by women who have really fought and struggled hard to get where they are. And we make the products with lots of love and purpose.”
Katrina Robertson, National Director of Sales, Thistle Farms
And as the products are made, the makers are remade. “Healing financially is critical and it's a part of our model that we don't talk about enough. Women can get sober, clean, start building a relationship with their kids back, but if they don't have a way to support themselves and to live, then the odds are stacked against them,” says Hal.
In his role as CEO, Hal is proud of the benefits package and health insurance and 401k options and beautifully branded space that everyone enjoys: “I see them bringing their family members around and showing it off—they're really proud that we have a café that serves healthy food that people love. The product quality level has gone up to a place where we’re getting shout-outs in major magazines and publications and the Today Show and other great media. It's a great product now and sales are up 54% this past year, so it's working.”
Photograph by Erica Baker
Thistle Farms, in many ways, epitomizes the social enterprise model: A for-profit business entity that intentionally leverages its profit to solve an intractable social issue. Its mission is both grand and gainful: Restoring lives by creating a healing space, creating livelihoods by producing beautiful things that meet real demand.
“That's one of my favorite parts,” Tianja smiles, “When a new woman completes the program. Or to watch how their eyes light up and they get so excited when they make their first product. When she buys her first car because she saved up her money. I'm just tickled to death when somebody announces that they just signed a lease for their new house or new apartment, or buys a house—just seeing everybody work together to help us get our lives back on track.”
“It's good to remember, remember why we do the work, why we really sell products—to bring more women off the street and out of poverty, and out of jail, and out of trafficking, and into some healing.”
Katrina Robertson, National Director or Sales, Thistle Farms
Take the Longer Path
Tianja will be the first to admit that the journey is long, and hard, and the path is almost always more difficult and swervy than straight and scenic. But here again, the 24 principles help to orient and give perspective: “Take the longer path was one of the first spiritual principles that I grabbed a hold to,” Tianja tells me, “because it made me know that no matter how hard things get financially, I don't ever have to revert back to criminal behavior. This is the first time since I was 18-years-old that I have been out of jail for five years—no violations, no court dates. Just taking the longer path, knowing that if I just have some patience, I know that there's people out there that can help me reach some of my goals without doing what I learned growing up in the community that I came from, which was prostitution, gamblers, dope dealers, addicts, shoplifters. Everybody took the short paths, which was total destruction.”
Togetherness is very likely the most valuable commodity created at Thistle Farms, something our competitive, individualistic culture doesn’t produce naturally. This bondedness, though, is hard won. Several staff of the Magdalene program devote every working (if not waking) hour to ensuring abundant support to women pursuing recovery.
“We are very, very close knit,” says Tianja, “We share everything, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the indifferent. And so that keeps us connected.” The best example Tianja has of this deep commitment and family-ness is Shelia McClain: “Shelia worked at the program when I came through—she was the person that really took me by the hand. I was reserved and quiet-spoken and kind of scared because I had been in so many different programs that just was not what it was supposed to be. So I kind of grabbed hold of her and went and did almost everything with her. And she shared her story. She shared her kids with me. She opened up her house when there was nowhere to go for holidays. She showed me what family was like.”
Since graduating herself in 2006, Shelia has helped provide holistic, wraparound care for nearly every woman in the program. “I definitely was kind of like a thistle. I was really, really rough on the outside,” she laughs, “It took Magdalene to find that pretty piece in the middle. To me, this is the best program in the country.”
Alongside Shelia, Keri Seay, assistant director of the Magdalene program, has spent the past ten years providing direct and holistic care day-in, day-out to women coming off the streets: “When you look at the whole recovery model, and you look at how Alcoholics Anonymous was founded, it's about one person helping another. It is not an individual program, you can't do it by yourself.”
Photograph by Erica Baker
Shelia describes the spectrum of experience the women have endured and are overcoming: “Everyone is coming from addiction, and everyone is coming from prostitution or trafficking. Pretty much all of them are going to have a criminal background. And then, they also have issues with the trail of places that they've been. For instance, if they had housing at one time, they have been evicted. They may have overdrawn in banks and they can't open a bank account. Things of that nature really get in the way of them being successful. Or, they've had their driver's license suspended or revoked. And child support. Oh yes, child support is a huge one.”
The process of overcoming all of those obstacles is essentially the Magdalene path. First things first, women entering the program start a rather rigorous drug and alcohol treatment program involving daily classes, support groups and 12-step meetings. Once the destructive coping mechanisms have been flushed, the women complete an at-your-own-pace computer literacy program. “By this time,” Keri estimates, “they've been with us somewhere between four and six months and that's when we evaluate their level of independence and they become eligible for employment.”
“If you look at a woman who's had 20 years of living on the streets—and mind you, she's had abuse prior to being on the streets,” explains Keri, “and then, she comes in to our program and is clean for three months, even a year, that's a huge accomplishment. To see them complete the program and realize, some of them, that is the first thing that they've ever completed. That's a huge thing for all of us. It’s such an awesome, beautiful thing to see, when somebody feels loved and accepted, like they have a place in this world.”
“One thing I've learned over and over is that women have known how to fish. We do not have to teach women how to fish. It makes no sense, that adage. What women need is they need access to the lake. They need good poles. They need a way to get to the market. And if we can provide that stuff, we are going to heal a lot of women.”
Becca Stevens, Founder, Thistle Farms
“I'll be honest, I was a little hesitant about being a male, stepping into the CEO role, knowing that a lot of guys probably are triggers. Thistle Farms is largely women-led. We're making lavender candles for crying out loud,” admits Hal.
Hal continues, “I'll never forget when I was being interviewed for this job, I met a woman, a survivor here, and asked, ‘How do you feel about a man being a CEO of Thistle Farms?’ She looked at me and said, ‘My whole life men have done nothing, but buy, sell and abuse me…to be able to trust one would be pretty awesome.’ At that point, I knew this was the job that I needed to do that I couldn't really explain probably to anybody other than myself, but it was a calling and I haven't looked back.”
Having run several large non-profits and a couple of businesses, Hal is no stranger to organizational development and strategy, yet Thistle Farms offers some unique challenges. “I didn't realize the impact that addiction has on a workplace setting. That was a pretty quick indoctrination when I first got here. A lot of addicts thrive on chaos, so they'll create chaos when it doesn't need to be there. I didn't see that coming at all,” reflects Hal. “I've never done this mashup where you're trying to build a sustainable business while also recognizing that 90% of your staff is in recovery and relapse could be a whisper away and this is maybe their first job.”
“I've learned a lot about the importance of mentorships and surrounding people with folks that will lift them up and not tear them down. I've really learned a new appreciation for the power of story and how story really builds a culture and brings people into a culture quickly where they want to be a part of it.”
Hal Cato, CEO, Thistle Farms
Commitment to these virtues is seen at the highest level: Over the years, Thistle Farms has grown a national network of 50 ‘sister organizations’ (mentees, in a sense) who are looking to create healing spaces in their community. Kat Milam, director of education and outreach, is responsible for supporting the network: “It is tempting to just make a blanket statement and say it can be the same [social enterprise] model for everyone, but we've found that employment piece, especially, can look really different for each sister organization.”
Hal agrees, “Really at the end of the day what matters most is: Do you have women who are thriving and they can live on their own, they can pay their rent, they can take care of their families? Whether they did that because you helped them find a really good job that they could succeed in or they're making products, I don't care, it's about how well the women are doing.”
With a produce-driven, full-service menu, the Café serves locally-sourced breakfast, lunch and Nashville’s only daily tea service. Women survivors are employed as servers and baristas, and all proceeds support Thistle Farms and its residential programs.
Beyond the product line, a great example of this employment innovation is Thistle Farms’ own experiment—a café in Nashville. Courtney Sobieralski joined Thistle Farms as a volunteer in 2012—fresh out of college—totally expecting to just file papers. But after hearing Becca’s vision for a café and saying she’d love to help, she remembers Becca’s response: “She said, ‘Well, awesome. Here, you can be the café coordinator and you're in charge of building it, and running it.’ I was 22 with an English degree,” Courtney laughs.
Cafe Director Courtney Sobieralski / Photograph by Erica Baker
This story doesn’t surprise me because, by all counts, it demonstrates a signature of Becca’s leadership: Walk behind. This is one of the most frequently quoted spiritual principles, meaning a profound responsibility of leadership is to let others take the lead, and support and celebrate all along the way.
With a little budget and a huge dream, Courtney and the team embarked on a new endeavor: “To make this a beautiful space where not only are we welcoming the community and to eat, but also another place for women of Magdalene to work, and to learn job skills, and job trainings, and grow within the company,” she says.
A few years later now, if success were measured by the deliciousness of their breakfast biscuits, they’d be off the charts, but Courtney says the proof isn’t in the biscuits actually: “We specialize in tea. We're the only place in Nashville that offers regular afternoon tea by reservation. We do the British-style, three-tiered display. The best is the Moringa Madres tea—not only does it taste amazing, but it’s grown by women in Mexico, providing them employment opportunities. If anybody comes to the café, that's what they need to order because it completes the whole circle.”
“I've seen how the café has helped the community outside of Thistle Farms, has helped them gather around what we're doing and really support us. They could always buy candles and soap and that kind of thing, but the café encourages relationships. It puts a face to somebody.”
Courtney Sobieralski, Director, Cafe at Thistle Farms
“My vision is to have the café model where we can go and help our sister organizations open cafés like ours, staffed and employed by women survivors—that's what I would like to do, that’s what we’re working on. We have a couple of possible sister organizations that maybe ready for something like this. I think it's just finding the right one and then being okay with experimenting, learning from that and being able to take that model elsewhere,” Courtney says.
No matter if sister organizations iterate the product line approach or the café experience, what’s most important is how well survivors are cared for and empowered—that will always come first.
“Our number one challenge will be making sure that all of the cities that are trying to replicate our model do so with a bit of fidelity, like the trauma-informed practices, like making sure survivor leaders are at the helm of the organization, and strategic storytelling, and understanding how to create good partnerships in the community for healthcare and dental care and legal services and those things. We want to make sure that our national network grows in a really smart way and intentional way—not just how many new homes can we open, but how many really good homes can we open that we know would be beneficial to survivors,” Hal emphasizes.
A true social enterprise, its quantitative metrics are made meaningful by its qualitative impacts—either one, without the other, would be unsustainable.
Photograph by Erica Baker
Looking forward, Hal says, “I really think our biggest opportunity is e-commerce and growing our online platform. There are millions and millions of people out there who if given the choice, will spend their money on a socially responsible product, something that really, truly does give back. I mean, we're not making something that we're gonna send five cents to some animal sanctuary somewhere. It is the real deal; women have jobs and have reunited with their families because of this place.”
“It's totally scalable, but we have to grow our markets tremendously,” says Becca.
And believe you me, that’s what they’ll do.