Three times a week on Belle Meade Boulevard, a symbol of wealth and affluence in Nashville, 30 former prostitutes gather in a small house, form a circle in the living room and talk about their lives.
One woman is terrified about how to deal with her pregnancy. Another woman wonders how she will get through her drug recovery program without the shepherding of her pastor, who has brain cancer. A third woman recounts how difficult it was to give back the money she earned on the streets before she enrolled in the Magdalene House program.
The stories are tough to hear and tougher to tell, but there’s a sense of comfort emanating from the room. The women nod, rub each other’s backs for comfort, sometimes offering a hug after a particularly trying moment of sharing.
At the end, they lock arms and pray together, reciting the Lord’s Prayer in more-than-symbolic unity.
Although the women have lived through what founder/director Becca Stevens calls a “living hell,” Magdalene House is a story about success. Founded in 1997, Magdalene House offers recovering communities for women with criminal histories in prostitution and drugs. In 2002, Stevens added a not-for-profit business called Thistle Farms, which employs the women while they are in the two-year program. The company makes all-natural bath products and sells them across the country.
The Magdalene House and Thistle Farms program works. In fact, without the aid of any state or federal grants, 72 percent of the 100 women to participate in Stevens’ program never return to the streets and never use drugs again.
“It took a lot of failed systems and failed communities to get the women on the streets, nobody got them on the streets themselves,” Stevens said. “It takes a lot of people to help them get there. It was ridiculous to think women were going to come off the streets by themselves.”
’For a minute, I didn’t believe there was a God
It’s difficult to appreciate the success rate of Magdalene House and Thistle Farms without truly listening to the stories of the women who have graduated the program.
One such woman is 38-year-old Tracey Warfield. In 2004, Warfield was an addict living on the streets, when she was charged with second degree homicide.
Warfield described her recollection of those days and how things were so bleak she lost faith.
“For a minute, I didn’t believe that there was a God. Because if there was, why did I have to take a life,” Warfield said. “I had to go back through the neighborhoods and talk to people about what had happened. It was just a difficult time for me. I’m learning that God was with me all the time.”
After receiving a lengthy probation for her crime, Warfield was directed to Magdalene House by her father in 2004. Since then, the former prostitute, who described days without sleep and running through snow “to get a hit or a trick,” has been a model of success at Magdalene House.
Warfield has been clean and off the streets since she entered Magdalene House in 2004. She graduated the program in 2006 and currently works as the manufacturing and production manager for Thistle Farms.
Warfield said part of her success in Magdalene House was due to the program’s unique set-up. Unlike other recovery programs, the women are not under hired supervision. The five recovery homes located around Nashville do not have a hired social worker living in with the women, who instead lean on each other for support.
Katie Lynn, who entered Magdalene House in February after battling an addiction to crack cocaine, said she had tried other recovery options. One route many prostitutes seeking refuge pursue is a traditional halfway house.
But that program still costs the woman money, as much as $100 per week, and that leads to familiar habits. According to Stevens, many women return to prostitution to pay their halfway house rent.
“I had tried a halfway house, but it was a 90-day program. There wasn’t any love and support in the program so that didn’t work,” Lynn said. “So, I left.”
According to the women, the Magdalene House homes offer a support group of women who have been in similar situations and overcome the same obstacles. Many of the women in Magdalene House have HIV or other serious diseases. Dealing with the realities of addiction recovery is another challenge in and of itself.
“It’s unexplainable, it’s the love, the support,” Lynn said. “They’re not judgmental. It’s not like… they meet every women where they’re at. If you need dental work, they do that. If you need therapy, counseling, they do that.”
The other remarkable aspect of Magdalene House is it financial sustainability. The women pay nothing while in the two-year program. In fact, while they’re working at Thistle Farms they get paid to produce ship and sell the products.
The funds raised by the business go a long way to supporting Magdalene House, but the rest comes from the program’s annual fundraiser, which will take place Thursday.
About 500 Nashvillians will attend the event at Commodore Ballroom, where the women of Magdalene House will share their stories.
Stevens said the fundraiser is essential to keeping Magdalene House thriving and she is hoping to raise as much as $250,000 this year.
“We put on a program to remind people how important this work is, how it filters back into the community and it affects all kinds of lives,” Stevens said. “It’s successful work, it’s hopeful work.
“We ask people to give in gratitude for all they have been given. So far we’ve been doing this work, it’s been able to sustain the program.”