12:01am

Wed April 27, 2011
Rising Up From Prostitution In Nashville

A Business That Helps Prostitutes Bloom In Recovery

Originally published on Mon May 2, 2011 8:06 am

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.

"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.

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 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We've been looking, this week, at breaking the cycle of prostitution in Nashville, Tennessee. The Magdalene Program is considered a model for healing. Magdalene puts its emphasis on housing, therapy, and the self-sustaining small business that allows the women to make money and gain respect. That business is called Thistle Farms. NPR's Jacki Lyden spent several weeks with the women and has this story.

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

Ms. NINA PHILLIPS: My name is Nina Phillips, and I prostituted for the first time at the age of about 13. I thought that making the quick money...

Ms. DORIS WALKER: My name is Doris, Doris Walker, and I'd be walking down the street in the middle of the night trying to pick up tricks and it would be midnight...

TARA: My name is Tara. My mom left me when I was five. I moved to Nashville when I was 17 and I started stripping at the Classic Cat with a fake ID. I met this guy that was a pimp...

Ms. VALERIE WILLIAMS: My name is Valerie Williams. A day in hell for me was basically a five to six day high, no sleep...

Ms. PENNY HALL: My name is Penny. I am 47 years old. I have three boys, they're all grown. My family disowned me, and I started living on the streets up under a bridge and that's what I called home for about 10 years.

LYDEN: Penny Hall. Photographer Stephen Alvarez and I would walk with her to that bridge, but first we wanted to spend some time at Thistle Farms.

Ms. HALL: And I never thought I'd be at a place making healing oil.

LYDEN: Products intended to heal others, heal these women.

(Soundbite of stirring)

Ms. HALL: You mix it up.

LYDEN: Mixing the oil in an industrial blender, bottles then get wrapped in a special paper made from thistle. Penny says it's her emblem.

Ms. HALL: It's like a rough weed, like we are, when we were out on the streets we was rough and tough, went through hell and back, and you know, got into situations. And we just survived through the cold, the drought like the thistle does. It don't need no water. It comes up out of the concrete transforms, there, into a beautiful flower.

Ms. AMY HAILEY: This is made with love. Yeah, can you feel it?

LYDEN: That's her friend, Amy Hailey, helping her make the rough brown paper. Penny's life before Thistle Farms was hopeless. And then one day she just couldn't live under a bridge any longer.

Ms. HALL: I woke up. And I guess something musta 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 going to have nothing as long as I stay here.

LYDEN: She turned to her buddies under the bridge - they called themselves the Alley Cats.

Ms. HALL: I got up and I told them bye. The people said what do you mean bye? I said I ain't coming back. They said yeah, you'll be back, you always come back. I said well this time it's different.

LYDEN: Penny took a break from making her lotions and balms at Thistle Farms and took us to the bridge - just a highway overpass. The homeless campsite, still there, is pure misery, filth and despair.

Ms. HALL: We had mattresses and blankets, you know, out here, so that was your bed at night. There was somebody over there on their bed. We had one going this way, we put all the food over there, cause there's rats.

LYDEN: It's the freezing cold in winter, and baking hot in summer.

Ms. HALL: Yep, thats basically - yes maam. I mean, and the mosquitoes are so bad in the summertime it's unreal. We just get - you can't even sit nowhere without being bit all up, youd have to cover up and sweat to death.

LYDEN: When Penny Hall left that environment, she says it was the first time she'd slept in a bed in three years. Passing her old high school on our way back, she says, that's where Oprah Winfrey went to school - East Nashville High School - but Penny dropped out.

The founder of the Magdalene Program and Thistle Farms is Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest. She started Magdalene in the late '90's, dreaming of a refuge that would change womens' lives. Over the next 15 years, she raised $12 million in private funds. To her, Magdalene - which has graduated over 150 women from its program - lives out an ideal of what love can do.

Ms. BECCA STEVENS (Founder, Magdalene Program): What we offer women is two years, never pay anything to live there with no authority in the house so that people can really form community and bonds. And I think that's life-changing.

LYDEN: And she wanted to start a business that would change their lives giving them skills and income.

Ms. STEVENS: And we named it Thistle Farms because thistles were the noxious weed you could find when you started going out to Dickerson Road and places where the women walk. You know, it grows in the places that are abandoned and kind of forgotten, and it has a history of survival by brutality. But it also has this little, deep purple center.

LYDEN: The idea came to her: sell body balms, healing products, make paper from the thistle flower. To her, a half-dead field of thistle is a field of gold. Prostitution, Stevens says, demands a horrible powerlessness most people don't see.

Ms. STEVENS: It is unsafe, and it's illegal, and it's harmful and it is violent for a lot of people over the years. And that's what - I think some of those stories are the ones that, you know, you don't get passed or they're pretty heartbreaking.

LYDEN: Yeah, sex that takes a toll.

Ms. STEVENS: Yes, like horrible things where women have been I have been with women who have been stabbed, you know, in the act of sex. And I have presided at funerals where women were shot, execution style, you know, in a cab of a truck having sex. I've been with women who have been thrown in the river after having sex. Some of those things you think: my God.

LYDEN: 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.

Ms. HALL: What I'd 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 going to take me to? Back under that bridge? No. I dont want to go back.

LYDEN: Her mother, who used to take her to the bar she owned, wasn't a role model, but in the end, Penny's made good with her family.

Ms. HALL: My mother, shes passed away now. Shed be so proud. My family, they love me. They wouldnt used to let me in their house, because they was scared I was going to steal. Today they give me the key, and leave me there.

LYDEN: Penny pauses to wipe her eyes.

Ms. HALL: And I just dont want to go back out there and live and have to turn a trick wondering if Im going to wake up in the morning without being beat up or raped or going to jail. Sorry I'm a cry baby.

LYDEN: Penny Hall's mentor, Becca Stevens, says it's better to cry than be numb. Thistle Farms and Magdalene have attracted interest from groups around the country and the world. Stevens wants the thistle flower to be a symbol for a woman's rising up from the degradation of prostitution.

Jacki Lyden, NPR News.

Ms. DORIS WALKER: (Singing) Magdalene came into my life. I have no worries, I have no strife.

INSKEEP: That's Doris Walker singing a song she wrote about Magdalene. Our series Nashville: Up From Prostitution was photographed by Stephen Alvarez, and you can see his photos and video at npr.org.

Ms. WALKER: (Singing) ...all those charities, donations coming from everywhere. Oh, God bless us all through the air. God, take me to Magdalene...

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.