Interview with Thistle Farms‘ Development Director, Heather Davis.
Organization Mission: Thistle Farms’ vision is to heal, empower, and employ women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. We do this by providing safe and supportive housing, the opportunity for economic independence, and a strong community of advocates and partners. We believe that in the end, love is the most powerful force for change in the world.
Population Served: Adult women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, addiction, and the violence of life on the streets.
Founding Year: 1997
Location: Nashville, TN
Organization Website: https://thistlefarms.org/
Please provide a brief overview of the organization’s work.
Thistle Farms is a sanctuary of healing for women survivors of abuse, addiction, trafficking and prostitution. Founded by the Rev. Becca Stevens, Thistle Farms began in 1997 as a residential program called Magdalene. In an effort to offer residents and graduates both economic support and job training, Thistle Farms’ social enterprises began in 2001, and have since grown into becoming the largest social enterprise employing women survivors in the country. Residents experience transformative, sustainable change through two years of rent-free housing, physical and mental health treatment, case-management, education, training, and employment opportunities. Thistle Farms currently employs 37 residents and graduates who work across all areas of the social enterprises. Our handmade, natural home and body products are sold online, at sales events, and in 450+ retail outlets nationwide. Over the past 12 months, the residents and graduates working at Thistle Farms have earned more than $1,150,000 collectively. Thistle Farms’ social enterprises include Home & Body, The Cafe at Thistle Farms, and Thistle Farms Global. Thistle Farms also supports a National Education & Outreach Initiative consisting of 50 sister and affiliate organizations across the country that are implementing Thistle Farms’ model.
In a few sentences, please describe the problem you are working to solve and your approach to solving this problem.
Thistle Farms residents have been allowed to fall through the cracks of broken systems and communities, so we believe it will take a loving community to offer healing. Residents range in age from 19-60 and most experienced sexual abuse beginning between ages 7-11 and alcohol/drug abuse by 15. Survivors have experienced an average of 10 months in incarceration and spent, on average, one decade in trafficking and prostitution. Thistle Farms’ ‘housing first’ model interrupts these cycles of poverty, abuse, addiction, and homelessness to provide a holistic path toward healing that includes committed advocacy for individuals, case management, health care, employment, support for education, and steps toward financial independence- all free of charge.
How and why did you end up working for this organization?
In 1997, Rev. Becca Stevens opened Thistle Farms’ first recovery home under the name Magdalene. She invited five women survivors to live there, rent-free, for two years. Her goal was to create a community where women could heal from years of trafficking, addiction, prostitution, and the violence of life on the streets. Soon after the first group entered the program it was clear that, though they were making great strides in their recovery, the women had no way to become economically independent. So, Becca and the residents began making candles in a church basement and, in 2001, Thistle Farms was born.
What kind of trends do you see in your area of work?
There are a number of trends affecting our area of work. On the therapeutic/residential side of the organization, we are seeing more and more women impacted by co-occurring disorders (addiction challenges + mental health issues) requiring a more intensive level of treatment and staff expertise. The shrinking availability of affordable housing is impacting every single woman completing our program and looking to get started on her own. On the business side of the organization, we recognize the need to reach new audiences and drive a richer ecommerce experience.
What do you think will change most about your work over the next 5 years?
With 50 sister organizations modeling our residential program and products available on store shelves in every state, we are quickly growing from a local/regional organization to a national brand. This will only continue.
What are the three most important skills you focus on developing in the population you serve? Why?
Healthy engagement and communication skills; making positive choices; controlling negative thoughts.
How has technology influenced the way your organization works?
It has primarily influenced the way we market our organization and sell our products, especially the growing impact of influencers and user generated content.
If we talk one year from now, reflecting on what a great year it’s been, what did you/the organization achieve?
We were able to celebrate 7 women successfully graduating from our program employed and able to move into their first apartment. In addition, we will have grown online sales by 25%.
What’s next for you in your work? What are you looking forward to?
We are exploring a new line of aromatherapy products as well as becoming more active in the development of affordable housing for women.
What do you wish others knew about the organization?
That we have created a national network offering more than 168 beds for women survivors of trafficking and addiction.