Thistle Farms is buzzing on a recent Wednesday morning as dozens of residents, staff, and visitors make their way to ‘the Circle’ for what many in attendance cherish as the highlight of their week. Joyous greetings and embraces fill the room as current residents and graduates of the Magdalene Program – all survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction – make their way to the Circle to share their stories. Thistle Farms is the business enterprise that funds the Magdalene Program, a two-year residential community offering healing and rehabilitation to these women. Magdalene can house up to 28 residents at a time, providing them free housing, healthcare, counseling, and of course employment with Thistle Farms. Residents stay in the program and work at Thistle Farms for two years, but many graduates continue to work alongside them, making their wonderful bath, body, and home products or serving customers in beautiful Thistle Farms Café. It is an amazing mission that is literally saving these women’s lives.
In the center of the Circle burns the candle that a member of the Thistle Farms community lights each day as a powerful symbol of sanctuary, love, and hope. As we go around the Circle, several women gesture toward it and express gratitude that it this candle burns for all of their Magdalene sisters, as well as for the women who have not yet found their way here. They offer comfort and encouragement to those who are struggling. They applaud and cheer for those celebrating milestones like sobriety anniversaries, reunions with families, a new job, or a new home. Visitors and volunteers welcome to join the Circle and soak it all in. These survivors have endured hardships most of us cannot imagine, and with the help of the Magdalene program and Thistle Farms, they are recovering and building beautiful lives for themselves. And now they return to the Circle again and again to share their stories and words of wisdom like these with each other:
“I am grateful that God is making a ministry of my mess.”
“I’ve been struggling these last few weeks, but I know my sisters are here and they’re lifting me up.”
“No matter where life takes you, remember that God’s love is there. And love heals.”
Many in the Circle express gratitude for each other, for their founder Becca Stevens, and their CEO, Hal Cato. One resident closed her remarks saying, “We all know how much Hal has done for Thistle Farms, but I want to say that nobody has ever fought so hard for me personally as Hal Cato has.” Cato says it’s a privilege to serve these women in this way. “Earning the trust and respect of women who have only known men who were there to buy, sell, or abuse them is a tremendous honor,” says Cato. “I don’t take it for granted for a single moment. I think my leadership mantra has served me well in this regard: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Thistle Farms was founded in 2001, and for many years made their wonderful bath and body products by hand and offered delicious coffee and food in the cozy atmosphere of the Café. But they had grown as much as they could in those surroundings and were not nearly self-sustaining. So, there was always the risk that they couldn’t afford to support their residents or pay their staff. Cato took the reigns as CEO in September 2015, and soon after began planning major changes that would enable Thistle Farms to attract a growing customer base and continue to thrive. By 2017, they had completed the beautiful renovation of the Café, they had moved into a huge facility that allows them to scale production of their bath and body products, and they re-branded those products with a new ‘upscale’ look to reflect their uncompromising quality. And all those changes have been worth it, as Thistle Farms continues to grow. Cato says, “I believe mission only gets a social enterprise so far. Quality products and/or a great experience have to be immediately in step behind it. If you combine the two together, there is no limit to what is possible. That was my goal—create a product and an environment where mission and quality were equally and beautifully yoked together. Sales have doubled since then and net income has improved 700%. And I know we’re just getting started.”
Cato is beyond passionate about the mission of the Magdalene program, and to support that mission he must run Thistle Farms as he would run any business. As such, he knew that joining the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce would introduce Thistle Farms to a network of potential vendors and customers to continue growing and serving those amazing women. Thistle Farms has been a Chamber member for years, and recently hosted the August Brewing up Business at the Café. Cato values their membership in the Nashville LGBT Chamber, and also wants his business to support our mission. He says, “This community has been good to us over the years and we want to give back and be of equal service to it. We love the direction the LGBT Chamber is taking and appreciate how many of its members meet up here for coffee and lunch!”
The Café is the perfect spot for our Chamber members to enjoy breakfast, lunch, or their impressive afternoon tea service. You will not find a friendlier or more eager staff to serve you! These women are grateful to be working, love their co-workers, and are incredibly proud of Thistle Farms. And all of that shows with every smile and every extra effort they give their customers. And the food is fantastic! They take great care in preparing a wide range of beautiful, delicious dishes from locally-sourced produce and other quality ingredients from their carefully chosen vendor partners. The Café at Thistle Farms will delight even the most discriminating Nashville foodies.
Just off the Café is the Thistle Farms storefront where customers can browse their bath, body and home products, as well as jewelry and accessories made by women recovering in Thistle Farms sister programs around the world. Thistle Farms uses natural, high-quality ingredients in making their bath and body products such as hand soap and lotion, lip balm, body butter, shaving cream. They all feel and smell amazing! Using these products doesn’t feel like supporting a social enterprise; it feels like self-indulgence. They also offer home products such as essential oils and their hand-poured soy candles like the one that burns in the middle of the Circle. Cato reminds us that “The holiday season will be here before we know it. Every 50 candles we sell employs a survivor for a week. Remember our gift shop when you’re making your holiday list. You’re giving more than a gift…you’re giving a woman a second chance at the same time.”
The women of Magdalene who are given that second chance take every opportunity to give back to their community as an expression of love and gratitude. That commitment is evident everywhere we look on the morning of our visit to Thistle Farms. Rachel Goldzweig, a 2017 graduate of the program, stopped by the Café to meet a friend for coffee. Every few minutes, another staff member on her way to serve other customers runs over and offers Goldzweig a warm embrace and welcome ‘home.’ Goldzweig was excited to share the news that she had just joined the Board of Thistle Farms and attended her first meeting the night before. Nearby, Shelia McClain, the Director of Education and Outreach at Thistle Farms, led the group tour of the facility. "I've never done this before," she announced to the group. "I'm filling in for the amazing tour guide, who is on vacation." And, of course, the tour was wonderful! McClain provided all sorts of information about the program, their growth over the last few years, and their plans for the future. She stepped in to help a fellow co-worker and share their mission with us. She even shared her amazing story of her life before Thistle Farms and her recovery since then, and closed with the confident, hopeful phrase we often hear within this beautiful community, "We are more than our story."To shop for Thistle Farms products, plan your next event at The Café, or inquire about volunteer opportunities or your place in the Circle, please visit: https://thistlefarms.org.