In 1997, the Magdalene House was founded by Becca Stevens, a priest from Vanderbilt’s campus. Magdalene House and Thistle Farms both work hand in hand to provide a safe and helpful community to women who have survived sex trafficking, prostitution, an abusive relationship, and/or addiction. Magdalene House and Thistle Farms work together to help the lives of these women, but specifically Magdalene House is the residential community and Thistle Farms is their “social enterprise” (www.thistlefarms.org).
Our community studies specifically focused on Thistle Farms and the steps these women take toward recovery. When we went to the Thistle Stop Café, we talked to a woman named Laquesha who told us how Magdalene House and Thistle Farms completely changed her life. Before she began to tell her story, she told us how hard this was for her and that she wasn’t going to tell us the actual details of her situation. She remembers her past, but talking through it brought back the horrible memories. Laquesha was in an abusive relationship before coming to Magdalene House, and described her state coming to the Magdalene House as “broken and mentally beat up”. She attempted suicide multiple times, and she was even brave enough to show us her scars. She knew there had to be something better for her. Laquesha was addicted to drugs for sixteen years, starting at the age of fourteen. She described that her drug of choice is cocaine. Today, she is transformed into a confident woman who loves herself for who she is. She works for the Thistle Stop Café today, which is one of the best parts of her life. Before being introduced to the Magdalene community, she didn’t think she was a people person. But her supervisor, Courtney, saw something in her that she had never seen, and now she enjoys working in the front of the café and talking to all of the customers and, more importantly, it has raised her confidence level more than anything has.
Just like Laquesha, the women at Thistle Farms need someone like Courtney who believes in their recoveries. For most of their lives, these women have been told that they are worthless, and will not amount to anything. Steven Seidman in “Theoretical Perspectives” mentions that “society supports and privileges the ‘normal and good’ forms of sexuality and aims to punish the ‘abnormal and bad’ ones through law, violence, ridicule, or stigma” (7). The women of Thistle Farms during their time before entering the program had been labeled as “abnormal and bad.” It is through the work of the program that allows the women to shed the label that society has placed on them.
Nowadays, Courtney says the best part of her life are her three kids. She has two daughters ages sixteen and seventeen, and a son who is adopted. She states, “they are what keep me going every day”. Vivian then asked her, “where would you be today if you hadn’t been introduced to Thistle Farms?” Laquesha said, “I would still be in hell. I would not be living life on life’s terms.”
We then asked her to describe the entire Magdalene House and Thistle Farms program to us. The whole program is twenty four months. Throughout the program, there are group classes on finance, life and wellness, exercise, etc. Laquesha describes that the program is “day in and day out” – there is “no chilling”. During the first six months, you only work on yourself: your health, your rehab, etc. The first thirty days is inpatient and outpatient recovery, followed by thirty days of OIC (a service that helps people get back on their feet), thirty days of an intensive outpatient program, and then any more therapy and treatments based personally on the women themselves. The women also work on GED programs, although this is not required for them. Even though it is not required, many of the women feel the obligation of doing so to get jobs in the future. They worked on whatever they needed to build confidence in themselves. One specific thing they did is a lot of writing. She said she is very tired of writing after all of the rehab and treatment. The women then meet with the director and the board and make a personal treatment plan for themselves. They are asked questions like, “what are your goals?” and “what are your hopes and dreams?” This amazing community will do absolutely anything to get these women’s lives back on track.
After the treatment and counseling, the women begin to work for Thistle Farms. At Thistle Farms, Laquesha says the women make bath and beauty products that are “good for the earth and good for the soul”. The workers at the Thistle Stop Café are the veterans and are past the stage of making beauty products.
Laquesha personally graduated the Magdalene program in May 2012 and started working at Thistle Farms in August. Describing the whole program, Laquesha says “getting clean is easy. The tough part is being a mother, finding a job, and being productive”. After she finishes working at the Thistle Stop Café, she plans on going to culinary school because she loves to decorate the food at the café before it gets served to the customers. This is the great thing about Thistle Farms: the goals and dreams are produced for these women who have been through so much hardship throughout their lives. She says throughout the program, the supervisors engrain that if you are not working toward your recovery, you are working toward your relapse. Every day, Laquesha woke up and chose not to get high. One day, she could have chosen to wake up and get high. The choice is on her, and if you choose to wake up and choose to get high, then you have to accept the consequences of your choices. The supervisors and the entire community loves you no matter what, but they instill the responsibility on the person themselves.
All in all, Magdalene House and Thistle Farms brings a new life and a new found confidence to these women. Laquesha now knows she can achieve her goals and anything she sets her mind to, and this would never be possible without the Magdalene community helping her through her steps to recovery.
Do you think that Magdalene House and other programs aimed at helping women should include support for their families? Will these women ever detach themselves from society’s labels for them before recovery, or will they constantly be fighting stigmas?