Val needed to cop, and right away. She stepped away from from the stranger’s car and headed toward her connect. Across the street, she could hear the women on the porch talking and laughing, and in the haze of her addiction, she felt that they were laughing at her. Val knew little about the people who lived there, she had always just referred to that house as the Mansion in The Hood. Once, she approached the women there, only to have one of them ask her, “aren’t you tired yet”? Somewhere, deep down inside of her, Val knew that she was indeed tired. Not just physically tired. Tired of her disease. Tired of it having her walk dangerous streets in the middle of the night. Tired of taking baths by stealing a few cubes of ice from a soft drink bin at the convenience store. Tired of being the wrong kind of “rock star”. Tired of the lies she told other people, but mostly of the lies she told herself. So, one day, she made her way back to that mansion, rested her nearly toothless head against the door and knocked. That was 1,112 days ago.
By age 6, Cynthia had already tried alcohol and marijuana. At the age of 8, she was raped by her cousin. A year after that, her father was killed in a fire at the Maury County Jail. When that happened, Cynthia entered the phase of her life she calls ‘her madness.” In most respects, that life resembles Val’s; addiction, prostitution, incarceration. Lies. The madness, as well as the rage, resentment, and bitterness, ended 4 years ago.
Today, both of these women are now key employees of Thistle Farms. Both are graduates of Magdalene, the place Val referred to as the Mansion in the Hood. Magdalene was founded in 1997 by Becca Stevens, with the idea that unconditional love is stronger than the forces that drive women to a life on the street. Thistle Farms came about to provide employment opportunities for residents and graduates whose prior lives led to felony convictions, which would disqualify them for most paid work. The women make lotions, balms, candles, and salt scrubs, package those products, (It was funny to watch The Missus try her hand with the heat gun and plastic wrap) and sell them through traditional retail outlets and by setting up booths at events. All of the work, production, inventory, marketing, etc, is performed by residents and graduates, with guidance and assistance from a handful of paid and volunteer staff. One staff member, JayCee, has a background in chemical engineering with Dupont, and she sets the production standards and does the cost analysis. She too, is a recovering addict, and is grateful for the chance to mentor other women and watch them grow as people and as employees.
But long before these women reach competency with basic manufacturing or sales skills, they must undergo a process wherein they confront themselves about their addictions. More than just a generic “12-step” program, Magdalene, in the words of Demetria, a current resident, “meets each woman where she is.” Some have terrible dental issues, a side effect common in those that smoke their drugs. In fact, Val, nearly toothless when she arrived, now has a beautiful smile which she shares easily. Some are HIV positive. Many have forgotten life’s most basic requirements. Val told me that she literally had to learn how to lay down and go to sleep. How to eat at scheduled times. How to bathe, and keep herself and her living space clean and organized. One thing they all have in common when they arrive is an emptiness of spirit, and each will tell you that a renewed sense of spirit is probably the thing they are most grateful for. With that, comes the revelations, those moments of clarity give way to a lifetime of clear, honest assessments of themselves and others. For Cynthia, a gratifying moment came after she confronted the relative that molested her. He offered to “pay her” now. She was, in that moment, able to forgive him. That was a measurement of her growth, a source of pride and proof of her healing. I was surprised to learn that she has authored a book, “Little Girl, Don’t Cry.” She is currently working on her second.
The Magdalene residential program is two years long. The women live in houses together with no supervision. Though there are supposed to be random drug tests performed, it would be impossible to hide use from these women. A lifetime of lies gives them a keen sense to sniff out dishonesty. The first three months are the most structured. Each day consists of either work or classes, or both. The days begin with group meditation, which gives each person in the circle an opportunity to share a part of herself with her sisters. On the day I attended, a reading was offered and set the tone for the rest of what was shared. The word ‘secrets” was prevalent that day, and many offered up what it meant for them to have freedom from those secrets. A big laugh was shared when Val, a former drug-user and prostitute, presented a bank bag containing $912.00, the proceeds from a sale. “Imagine that, me, carrying around 900 dollars!” The classes, or groups, as they are called, can be about anything from spirituality (though, it was made abundantly clear that there is no proselytising, no religious doctrine is offered) to financial literacy. The women are encouraged to participate in a program called IDA, or Individual Development Accounts. In fact, Cynthia, recently married and living in her own apartment, purchased her own car through this program. Eventually, the women can work at Thistle Farms. They start at minimum wage, but have the opportunity to take on more responsibility and in turn, earn more hourly wage. Many find that they are uniquely suited for certain jobs, once they channel the skills and energy once used to score drugs, into sales, or distribution or marketing.
I was invited to come down to Thistle Farms and observe a day of production. Since I am interested in making similar products here at Coyote Creek, I jumped at the chance. I even dragged along the Missus, who only ventures into Nashville when she needs to go through it on her way to a Florida vacation. (Hey, its nice up here on the Ridge) Well, I lost about all interest in the process of making the products; all I wanted to do was talk to these remarkable women. There was no need to draw them out. Each of them sat with me and honestly answered every question, without diversion, obsfucation, or even a hint of spin.
Much has been written about the staff and volunteers and indeed the Founder of Thistle Farms, and by more talented writers than myself. But I couldn’t walk away from the experience of being there without feeling grateful that these people exist. There are concerns that the economic downturn may result in both a reduction of individual gifts to the program, and that the demographic they target for their products may dwindle. (a bottle of unscented body lotion runs 18 bucks) There are plans to use New Media tools to attract new supporters and indeed new customers. There is a blog in the works. I hope to offer some assistance from to time, though perhaps that might be in helping them solve their drainage problems and rotting fascia boards, since I do not feel qualified to teach anything, and money isn’t my long suit….
But I urge those of you with some spare time to visit Thistle Farms. I promise you will come away from it a little bit different, less judgmental, perhaps, or at least less unconcerned. Here are some pics from our visit!