Becca Stevens, founder of Nashville’s wildly successful Thistle Farms, pointedly summarized heroism in her response to what motivates her to help women survivors of abuse, addiction, trafficking and prostitution.
“What makes you faithful to justice is when you do it even when you’re not motivated.”
It’s her faithfulness for nearly 20 years, her love for women she cares so deeply about, and the success of her organization's model and its products for sale that have earned her a place in this year's top 10 list of CNN Heroes.
“I feel grateful and a little intimidated,” said Stevens, an Episcopal priest. “When it’s a possibility, you kind of hope for it. Everyone at Thistle Farms knew about it and I didn’t want to disappoint the community.”
What started as a single home for four women has grown to five residential houses and a million-dollar company. Thistle Farms provides women a place to stay for two years at no cost, plus access to medical and dental care, therapy, substance abuse treatment and education. Women have the opportunity to earn stable wages; nearly 50 women create products for a natural bath and body product line, and work at the Thistle Stop Cafe, Studios Workshop and Thistle Farms Global Marketplace.
The national attention launched by CNN couldn’t have come at a better time, according to Stevens: Whole Foods Markets are carrying Thistle Farms products in 450 of its stores for the holidays.
Stevens told CNN, “It made perfect sense to me to make body care products that were about healing bodies – bodies that had been used and abused for so long."
Many of the products sold by Thistle Farms – including shower gels, bath salts and candles – are branded with “Love Heals.”
Stevens, a childhood abuse survivor, is jubilant when she talks about showing love to the women she serves. The words tumble out of her mouth, alive with the fierce belief she has in her mission: “Love is a great business model – touting love and being lavish with it.”
She has seen that love transform the lives of more than 200 women.
“The most important thing to grasp: you are loved beyond your wildest imagination so far,” she said.
Regina Mullins was one of the first women to graduate from the residential program. She came to Stevens after being in and out of incarceration.
“I was wandering around in addiction on the streets. I had lost everything including my children, and most of all, myself,” Mullins said.
She learned about the residential program at Thistle Farms, called Magdalene, from another woman she had been incarcerated with. But when she learned Stevens was a priest, it almost kept her from entering the program.
“I didn’t trust anything that anybody had said because I’d had bad instances with clergy, police officers and anybody in authority, or that said they were willing to help. I just thought, ‘You have to give something to get something.’ Most of the time it was myself.
“The first day I met (Becca), I could not believe she was a priest. She was just like one of us. She said, ‘Regina, even though I’m a priest, there’s a thin line between priest and prostitute.’ That blew me away.”
Mullins has been clean for 20 years. She has worked at Thistle Farms for 17 years and is transitioning into the role of relationship manager and outreach coordinator. She’ll help educate other cities looking to implement programs for women survivors.
“Everything (Becca) told us, it was the truth. She supported us in getting real jobs. I got to go back to school, I got my children back. I learned how to pay a mortgage and build my life again,” Mullins said. “Thistle was a stepping stone to get back into society.”
She teared up as she added, “(Becca’s) thing was how could she help each woman achieve what (they) wanted to do in their lives. We’ve shared tears. We’ve learned how to laugh at ourselves. We share those mistakes and messes with other people and how we came through it.”
Stevens didn’t directly respond to a question about challenges in her line of work, but rather replied, “I think of the next step.” She’s planning a trip to Greece this spring to work with women refugees there. “I want to turn their life vests into welcome mats,” she said. She plans to sell the mats online through Thistle Farms Global Marketplace. “Wouldn’t it be great to see people, churches or synagogues have welcome mats from refugees – the bright orange – saying, ‘We do welcome refugees, that’s who we are.’”
Her desire to love women propels her forward, expanding her reach further than she ever imagined.
“It’s always been on my heart, (but) I’m not always motivated. You do the work; it doesn’t matter if you’re not motivated. Throughout the years, the work just reinvigorates you and inspires you.”
Stevens has a chance to win $100,000 for her cause when Kelly Ripa and Anderson Cooper announce the CNN Hero of the Year live Dec. 11 from New York's American Museum of Natural History.
The winner will be determined by online voting, which is now underway at www.CNNHeroes.com, and she already has plans for the prize if she wins. She said the money will be used solely for national outreach to help other “sister communities,” independent organizations committed to working with women in trafficking, prostitution and addiction.
“Our goal is to open five new houses in 2017 across the country. One hundred percent of that money would go to this. That money would be to pay to educate and train people in other cities, and organize fundraisers.”
She encourages the community that has supported her for two decades to vote, and vote often, before the online voting ends Dec. 6.
“We have never taken any federal or state funding. We have always been pleasantly and gratefully surprised by the generosity of Nashville.
“This award is for the whole community."
Photos credits: Kristin Sweeting & Peggy Napier