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THISTLE FARMS : Spreading Seeds of Love
By Meredith Craig De Pietro

There is a farm in Nashville that spreads love instead of seeds. Thistle Farms is a nonprofit that assists female survivors of addiction, prostitution, and trafficking in regaining control over their lives. They believe that something as simple as love has the power to heal. “You heal a woman, you heal a family, you heal a community,” says Hal Cato, CEO of Thistle Farms. “It’s amazing, it starts with one woman.”

In the case of Thistle Farms’ origin, it started with one woman in particular: Becca Stevens. 23 years ago, Stevens, an Episcopal priest and a survivor of early childhood sexual abuse started the program in a chapel on the Vanderbilt campus. The failure rate at the standard halfway houses was high, and Stevens knew there had to be a better way to address this issue. “Her vision was really simple,” says Cato. “What do women need to heal? They need time and they need space. They need a home where they can live at no cost.” And that’s how Thistle Farms was born.

In the early days, Stevens found women by walking the streets, doing women’s nails, giving out food, and whatever it took to start building relationships and building trust. At first, it was difficult to get women to come, but now there is a long waiting list, capped at around a hundred people. There are women like Donna Dozier-Spears, a food production manager and survivor who was involved in sex trafficking before finding Thistle Farms. “I didn’t know how to get out,” says Dozier-Spears. “I lived in fear, didn’t know how to get out. I lived in shame, didn’t know how to get out. And shame and fear could keep you so locked down.” Her brother lived in Tennessee and told her about the program. “[At] Thistle Farms the first thing they did was show you love, hope, peace, and trust,” says Dozier-Spears.

The program works by giving survivors two years of free housing, food, healthcare, therapy, and education, completely free of charge. “We cover 100% of all their health care costs,” says Cato. “There’s no out of pocket to them. Once [they] start healing physically and then mentally, we’ll connect [them] with a counselor that they can start going to, to therapeutic groups, and all of that.” There are no strings attached, and for the first time in many women’s lives, they are part of a community.  “First they teach you how to love yourself,” says Dozier Spears. “They have people in place to catch you when you’re feeling some kind of way.” Thistle Farms becomes the safety net that most of these women lack in their outside life.

Here, it’s possible to get a second chance (and third and fourth chance.) The name, “Thistle Farms” is symbolic of the personal regeneration that happens in everyone involved in the organization and surrounding community. “The thistle is the only flower that blooms and busts up through the concrete and on the streets where the women we serve walk and live. And it can grow up chain link fences,” says Cato. “You can chop it down and it will grow back in a week. There’s a lot of beauty and a lot of resilience there.”

Graduates of the program are then employed in one of Thistle Farms’ social enterprises, making bath and body products, while learning job skills and making a living wage to support themselves. “That’s where the financial healing begins and I really think that is probably one of the most critical parts of it,” says Cato. “Before we had a social enterprise when [women finished] the program, clean, sober, doing great but [you] go out there and have 100 or more arrests on your record and no work experience and a ninth-grade education, who’s gonna hire you?” Here, these women can work and find the freedom that comes with financial independence. “I’ll never forget my first Christmas here. A woman came in,” says Cato. “She said, “These are the first Christmas presents I’ve ever been able to buy my kids and I bought them.” And I just lost it, you know?”

The final piece at Thistle Farms is the idea of passing on what you’ve learned and paying forward the love. “We call it a life-long sisterhood of support, where it’s not just a two-year program,” says Cato. “You’re part of a community for life and we got your back. And women will come back and sit in the circle and ask for when they need help and they’ll bring the next woman off the street who they know needs help, and it’s just a beautiful, beautiful thing.” The program works because the women inspire each other. “You have to show them someone that’s been where they were, you have to show them someone that’s been where they’ve been, so they can see the hope and they can see the light,” says Dozier-Spears. “When you put a person somewhere where they [can] see that hope, that light, [and say] “I’m not alone, I’m not by myself,” that’s the beginning of love.” 

The community expands to alumni and supporters of the program, including The Wood Brothers, an American band who have been so inspired by the program that they have partnered with Thistle Farms to bring awareness, donating $1 from each ticket sale to the organization.

According to Thistle Farms, the roots of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction are often found in childhood abuse, loss, and neglect. Thistle Farms aims to pull up those damaged roots, and instead plant unconditional love and harvest real hope. “We’re gonna love these women until they love themselves again, and then they will pass that love on, and it’s just that ripple effect,” says Cato. Women like Dozier-Spears will receive the time, space and support to focus on rebuilding their lives. “Today, I walk with my heart. I’m so grateful that now everything I do, I’m walking with my heartbeat,”  says Dozier Spears. “I walked without it for so long.”