From the parking lot outside of St. Augustine’s Chapel on the Vanderbilt campus, lavender scents the thick, humid air on a hot June morning. The sweet aroma is coming not from the grounds around the chapel, but from inside the small, A-framed building, where since 9 a.m., about a dozen women have been in the kitchen melting beeswax, blending oils, or sitting at a table mixing salts, hand-sewing tiny cotton pillows, and fixing labels to small metal tins.
Their work is for Thistle Farms, the recently started and newest program of Magdalene, which was founded in 1995 by Becca Stevens, a community activist and the Episcopal chaplain of St. Augustine’s. Magdalene provides recovering street prostitutes with long-term secure housing, treatment for their drug and alcohol addictions, counseling, life skills, job training, and continued support as they regain their lives and reenter the legal world. Magdalene currently operates three residences to house convicted prostitutes as they work toward recovery (see Scene cover story, Dec. 21, 2000).
Stevens says that Thistle Farms is a natural next step in the Magdalene story. “Magdalene is all about healing,” she says. “In the healing of former prostitutes, the healing of the body is a big part of that process. But you can’t heal in isolation. The vision of Thistle Farms is that the participants make and offer a healing product, and then the people who buy that product offer healing by supporting the program through their purchases.”
Though Thistle Farms has been an idea that Stevens has kicked around with Magdalene supporters for more than five years, the cottage industry actually was launched in January, thanks to seed money received through grants and to the new Thistle Farms program director, Sarah Scarborough.
Several grant applications written by Cary Rayson, a longtime Magdalene volunteer and board member, reaped $10,000 from the Junior League of Nashville, providing start-up money. Two students from Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management wrote a business plan, generating another $6,000 from the Frist Foundation.
Scarborough, a Nashville native and graduate of Trinity College in Connecticut, was a conservationist in the Yellowstone area in Bozeman, Mont., as part of her service to AmeriCorps. She spent a year at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems in Santa Cruz, Calif., where she learned to make soaps, salves, candles, and baskets. A high school friend, Magdalene board member Mary Britton Cummings, told her about the opportunity to build Thistle Farms.
“This just felt right,” Scarborough says. “I have always loved gardening and crafts, and after school, I wanted to do something useful, something helpful. With Thistle Farms, I can do the things I love while making a meaningful contribution.”
Stevens and volunteer Mary Jane Smith conceived the name. The thistle, a tiny purple wildflower with a protective armor of spikes, Stevens says, is the only flower that grows along the gritty roads where Nashville prostitutes ply their trade. The idea of a farm was appealing for its association to growing and nature.
The first official day of production was Valentine’s Day, and the group began with balms. Christine Wideman, a Magdalene graduate, remembers the day. “We made about 150 tins of balsam fir balm,” she says. “I looked at them spread all over the table. I just said ‘Look what we did!’ It was so amazing. I had never done anything like that before. It was such a wonderful feeling.”
“The work helps the Magdalene women build self-confidence and self-esteem,” Scarborough says. “For some of the women, it’s the first legal work they’ve ever done. It provides an ideal transition back to the work force because it’s low-key, they can dress the way they want, they can bring their children. It’s also very therapeutic, working with their hands, with such wonderful scents.”
Three of the four products carry biblical names: Salts of Babylon (bath salts), Balm of Gilead (soothing salves), and Flame of Penuel (candles in metal tins). They are made in three scents: lavender, rose-grapefruit, and balsam fir. The hand-sewn sachets with one-of-a-kind designs are scented with lavender and chamomile.
The products each carry a label explaining the story of Thistle Farms and Magdalene. In addition, each sachet is tied with a card offering personal testimony from a Magdalene woman. On her card, Patricia Horton wrote: “My name is Patricia Louise Horton, I am a child and a lady. At 46 years old, I am a mother of two and grandmother of seven. I was a junky (sic) and a prostitute. My life selling my body left me with an empty soul. Now I have hope. Magdalene brought me love and support and has allowed me to plant seeds of hope in my own life and to nourish them so they will continue to grow.”
In addition to the Thistle Farms products, a group of Vanderbilt University women students spent two days of their alternative spring break this year planting organic gardens at two of the Magdalene houses. The eventual goal is to sell the harvest of fresh herbs, flowers, and pumpkins. Horton now oversees the gardens, with help from the house residents.
The women produce the Thistle Farms products every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. at St. Augustine. The Magdalene graduates and participants each have their own areas of interest: Phyllis, who brings baby Christian to work with her, makes the balms. Christine, who brings 16-month-old Tiffany, sews the sachet pillows. Diane Santiago and Sheila Raymond create bath salts and candles. Cheryle Holt is developing an inventory system. Scarborough oversees the work and volunteers pitch in where needed. Unless you know the women, it is almost impossible to tell the volunteers from the Magdalene graduates.
“This idea, the idea of a community working together, is not new,” Stevens says. “Women have been sitting at tables, across from one another, sewing and working together for centuries. Here, one is a volunteer and one is a participant, but they are still sitting at a table across from one another, talking about babies, the world, their dreams and hopes.”
The next step is finding a way to market the products. Junior League volunteers are working on a Web site and securing retail outlets for Thistle Farms. So far, the products are available at St. Augustine’s and soon will be sold at area health food stores, boutiques, and some church bookstores. Bath salts are $5, balms are $9, and candles and sachets are $12 each.
Money raised from product sales will go back to the Magdalene program to start the healing process for anther group of women.
As Magdalene graduate Christine Wideman, clean for three years, explains, “When I came to Magdalene, there were people there in the house with open arms to welcome me in and help me. While I was there, I was able to do that for the new girls coming in. Now that I am not living in a Magdalene house, I can do this, and the things that I make will go to the program to help the next group of girls coming in. If not for Magdalene, I would be dead now. If I can do anything to help this program and other women like me, that’s what I want to do.”
Contact Sarah Scarborough at Thistle Farms at 322-4783.
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