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A Business That Helps Prostitutes Bloom In Recovery

People gather in a support circle at Thistle Farms.
Stephen Alvarez for NPR
People gather in a support circle at Thistle Farms.

Last in a three-part series.

For prostitutes looking to get drug free and off the streets, the Magdalene program in Nashville, Tenn., provides a model for healing. Magdalene offers housing, therapy and a self-sustaining small business that allows the women it serves to make money and gain respect.

That business is Thistle Farms, and the recovering women who run it make body care products by hand and paper made of thistle.

If you open the door at Thistle Farms and ask a woman about becoming a prostitute, you hear about a world of pain.

There's Nina Phillips, who turned her first trick at 13 years old when she was a dancer at a gentleman's club in Atlanta. And Tara Adcock, whose mother left when she was 5. Adcock started stripping at a club in Nashville at 17 using a fake ID. Valerie Williams, who before coming to Magdalene, would be on a crack high for sometimes 5 or 6 days straight.

Then there's Penny Hall, a stocky woman in a perpetual flannel shirt, whose girlfriend's name is tattooed on her neck. Her voice is like burled wood.

"I am 47 years old. My family disowned me. And I started living on the streets up on the bridge and that's what I called home for about 10 years," Hall says.

Between manufacturing, sales and administration, 32 graduates or residents of Magdalene work at Thistle Farms. Hall is one of a couple dozen women currently making bath and body products there.

"I never thought I'd be at a place making healing oil," she says as she stirs a plastic bowl of bath oil with a whisk.

A Life Transformed

Thistle Farms makes lotions and balms, products intended to heal others, and these women.

After the oil is mixed, the bottles are wrapped in a special paper the women make from thistle they collect on roadsides and fields. Hall says thistle is their emblem.

Women at Thistle Farms make body care products by hand and paper from thistles.
/ Stephen Alvarez for NPR
Stephen Alvarez for NPR
Women at Thistle Farms make body care products by hand and paper from thistles.

"Like a rough weed, like we are, when we're out there on the streets. We was rough and tough, went through hell and back, got into situations and we just survived the cold and the drought like the thistle does. It don't need no water. It comes up out of the concrete, and it transforms into a beautiful flower," Hall says.

Hall's life before Thistle Farms was bleak and hopeless. And then one day, she said she just couldn't live under a bridge any longer. And a judge who said he'd send her to Magdalene or prison — and then gave her $10 for a bus ticket — gave her a nudge.

"I woke up and I guess something must have hit that morning. I said 'This has got to go.' I took a good hard look at my life, and I said 'I'm never gonna have nothing as long as I stay here,'" Hall says.

She turned to her buddies under the bridge — they called themselves the Alley Cats — and told them goodbye.

"The people said 'What do you mean bye?' I said 'I ain't coming back.' They said 'Yeah, you always come back.' I said, 'Well this time it's different,'" Hall says.

The bridge is actually a highway overpass. The homeless campsite is still there. There were — and still are — mattresses and blankets where Hall and the others slept at night. It's a trash-strewn, filthy, rat-infested scene, freezing cold in winter and baking in summer. But they'd still have to put blankets over their heads.

"And the mosquitoes are so bad in the summertime it's unreal. You can't even sit nowhere without being bitten up. You'd have to cover up and sweat to death," Hall says.

She kept a CB radio to meet men for prostitution, usually truckers at a nearby truck stop. When Hall left that environment, she says it was the first time she'd slept in a real bed in three years.

'Survival By Brutality'

The founder of the Magdalene program and Thistle Farms is Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest. She started Magdalene in the late 1990s, dreaming of a refuge that would change women's lives. Over the next 15 years, she raised $12 million in private funds.

More than 150 women have completed the program, which offers women with criminal histories of drug addiction and prostitution a free intensified program of housing, counseling and training.

And she wanted to start a business to give them skills and income. The idea came to her: sell body balms — healing products — and make paper from the thistle flower. To her, a half-dead field of thistle is a field of gold.

"It grows in the places that are abandoned and kind of forgotten, and it also has a history of survival by brutality," she says. "But it also has this beautiful deep purple center."

Prostitution, Stevens says, demands a horrible powerlessness most people don't see.

"It is unsafe, it's illegal and it's harmful and it is violent for a lot of people over the years," she says. "I've been with women who have been stabbed in the act of sex and I have presided at funerals where women have been shot execution-style in a cab of a truck after having sex. I've presided over funerals where women have been thrown in the river after having sex. Some of those things you think 'My God.'"

Love Heals

It's a grace that the women in Magdalene are unlikely to wind up that way. It's quite possible that could have happened to Penny Hall — who says she could only perform sex acts if she was high. She's going to hold on to Magdalene.

"Well, what I do is when I think about situations like that, I play the tape out: If I walk away, leave where I'm at, where is it gonna take me to? Back under that bridge? No. I don't want to go back," Hall says.

/ Stephen Alvarez for NPR
Stephen Alvarez for NPR

Her mother, who used to take her to the bar she owned, wasn't a role model. Her mother has passed away, but Hall thinks she'd be proud, and she has made good with the rest of her family.

"My family, they love me. They wouldn't used to let me in their house, 'cause they was scared I was gonna steal. Today they give me the key and leave me there," Hall says.

Hall says she doesn't want to return to the streets.

"I just don't want to go back out there and try to live and have to turn a trick, wonder if I'm going to wake up in the morning without being beat up or raped or going to jail," she says, choking back tears.

Thistle Farms and Magdalene have attracted interest from other non-profits from around the country and around the world interested in replicating their success. Stevens wants the thistle flower to be a symbol for a woman's rising up from the degradation of prostitution.

The motto at Thistle Farms is "love heals." The women say that's not because it's a happy ending. It's their vow to themselves and each other.

Audio for this story was produced by Rolando Arrieta.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.