Thistle Farms was buzzing on a recent Wednesday morning, as dozens of residents, staff, and visitors made 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 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 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 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 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.
With the help of the Magdalene program and Thistle Farms, these survivers 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 by the time Cato took the reigns as CEO in September 2015, the organization had expanded to the point it was limited by its space. Cato led 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 it needed to continue growing and serving those amazing women.
Thistle Farms 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 its 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! These women are grateful to be working, love their co-workers, and are incredibly proud of Thistle Farms. And the food is fantastic!
Just off the Café is the Thistle Farms store front 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 just 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 ran 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. "I'm filling in for the amazing tour guide, who is on vacation." And, of course, the tour was wonderful, closing 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, visit thistlefarms.org.