For many women on the street, prostitution was where they turned when they had no other options. But in Nashville, Tenn., there is another choice for these women -- Magdalene.
Magdalene is a private residential rehab center that takes its motto of "love heals" very seriously.
Founded in 1997 by Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest who knows the horrors of abuse from her own childhood, Magdalene is a sanctuary for women with criminal histories of prostitution and drug addiction.
At Magdalene, women receive two years of free housing, therapy, medical care, education and employment -- everything they need to prepare them for the transition back into a community.
NPR did a video interview with some of the women who make up the Magdalene community on a tour of the streets they used to walk. One woman, Tara, who was a prostitute from the age of 17 to the age of 33, explains how she ended up on the street:
"I met this guy that was a pimp, and he took me under his wing, he took real good care of me, fed me with dope, and gave me clothes, a place to live and I thought I was just in heaven," she says. "And then one day he told me, 'hit the block.'"
Another woman, Sheila, looks back on her past with disbelief.
"Could you imagine walkin' alone out here by yourself, getting in a car with a stranger that you don't even know and having sex with him... I think about that stuff now, I'm like, I was crazy."
Stevens tells NPR that prostitutes like these women don't end up on the street on their own.
"The truth is, no one went to the streets by themselves; it took a lot of failed systems and a lot of, you know, brokenness to get them out there and it's crazy to think they're going to get off by themselves. It takes that same community to welcome them back."
In its 14-year history, Magdalene has had more than 150 graduates, about three-quarters of whom were still clean two and a half years after entering the program. When Stevens started Magdalene, there were five women; now Magdalene has six houses and about 30 women at a time. There are currently 100 women on the waiting list.
While at Magdalene, women learn how to make products that promote healing -- bath and body oils and candles -- by hand. Their nonprofit business, called Thistle Farms, sells the products, and the proceeds support the Farm and Magdalene. Magdalene receives no government funding; instead, it relies on private grants, individual donations and the sale of Thistle Farms products.
By working at Thistle Farms, the women gain job skills and learn responsibility and cooperation. The business has been used as a model by groups throughout the world, and eagerly shares its strategies with interested individuals and organizations through education workshops. Visitors and volunteers are also welcome at the Farm.
Thistle Farms got its name because the thistle flower is the women's emblem, and what they use to create the products. Stevens explained to HuffPost, "Thistles, they're weeds that are just out there that people despise, we take them and make something beautiful."
The same could be said of the prostitutes, who often get blamed by society for their situation. But, as Stevens told NPR, "I have never met a woman coming off the streets of Nashville, Tenn., who chose prostitution as their preferred career at the age of 6, 7, 8 and 9."
Stevens explained to HuffPost that all of the women who come to Magdalene have been raped; many were molested between the ages of 7 and 11. They're all addicted to drugs and have been arrested multiple times. But Magdalene is working to change those statistics.
How You Can Help
Go to Thistle Farms' online store and order their products. The money directly benefits the women at Magdalene. Says Stevens, "By buying our products, [customers] are helping women stay off the streets." Even better, grab some of your friends and host a satellite party, or what Thistle Farms has dubbed "Tupperware-with-a-conscience parties." If you contact the Farm, they can send you videos or arrange to Skype in and give you information about the business, Magdalene and why it's important for the community to support these women. You and your friends can discuss ways to help while browsing the Farm's products.
Grab some friends and go thistle-harvesting in your town, then send your spoils to Thistle Farms. Thistles grow all over the country, and the Farm is happy to receive them. But be careful -- they're prickly!
And one of the best things people can do, says Stevens, is to speak their own truth about the problem, rather than just believing the myths surrounding prostitution. "It's really the idea that love heals and that together we are all better off than we are apart. We are all safer and better people together."
And keep in mind that even small actions help.
"You don't have to worry about changing the world," says Stevens. "The idea of loving the whole world one person at a time is a great way to live your life. Don't worry about big or small. I'm okay being a drop in the bucket, and I love the idea of a thousand more people with us being drops in the bucket too."