Here in Nashville, Thistle Farms and founder Becca Stevens are regarded, and frequently written about, as the successful role models for how a non-profit should run and serve its community. In the 21 years since its inception Thistle Farms has grown nationally and internationally, helping women escape the traumas of trafficking and all the horrors associated with it, to over 40 centers worldwide.
The start of Thistle Farms grew from a homeless feeding program Stevens was running in Nashville at the time. “I saw many homeless men but not many women, mainly because they were out on the streets involved in prostitution or in prison, and I realized what they needed was a sanctuary that was peaceful and offered them a permanent way out. It had to be more than a shelter or a halfway house”.
Premises were found and the first intake of five women were welcomed. But the philosophy was not to just give the women food and money-that would just encourage them to leave and continue their old lifestyle. The project and the participants had to take a long term view. By taking in only small numbers, and working with them to give them the skills to move on to a ‘normal life’ afterwards was the founding objective. While this proved a viable model and benefited the women of whom 85% have become, and remain solid citizens, it did early on pose problems in other areas: Fundraising. Donors were not keen on the small numbers involved.
“We don’t look good on paper to many potential donors..we are too long term and our numbers (of participants) are small” explains Stevens. “We may only take in 20 women a year to one of our programs in Nashville…but to those that do donate, the return on investment is huge. They can change a woman’s, a family’s life..it may cost $40,000 to keep them off the streets-but double that if they go to Prison. Then they can go onto maybe earn $400,000 over 10 years. That’s a really great investment”.
Since inception Thistle Farms has seen over 1800 women go through their 40 communities they have around the US. Expansion is now happening in Europe to help with the refugee crisis. Stevens says so many women refugees end up being trafficked. To help they have opened a center in Greece where refugee women are reworking their life jackets and blankets into “Welcome Mats” which have so far generated over $140,000 in sales in the first year. The money earned from this allows the women a greater degree of autonomy, power, economic independence and allows them to “find a safe place”.
The scale of the problem organizations like Thistle Farms are dealing with appear daunting..71% of trafficking is with women, and some 12,000 women are missing from Refugee camps, many being sold into the sex trade. (Europe received over 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2015, more than double that of the previous year. More than one million migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, sharply dropping to 364,000 in 2016). Stevens recognizes that everyone has a role to play in combating this..governments, NGO’s and other non-profits. “Everyone has to be involved in helping these vulnerable, desperate people, it’s a non-competitive sport, the more holistic approach we can organize with small pockets of help from every kind from any organization has to be the way forward”.
So while celebrating 21 years of progress, looking back what lessons, achievements, experiences does Stevens remember-positive and negative?
She unhesitatingly offers up the first… “Really good luck, by finding the right team of women from early on who walked in and understood our story and our spirit” She highlights Regina Greenlee their outreach director as a “powerhouse’”, who has been instrumental in their success.
Others? The opening of the Cafe. “I had a lot of pushback from donors, but I argued this is the way people will come to us” and so she has been proved right the Cafe at Thistle Farms is a huge success, though they have not opened any others, as yet.
Her other successes? Taking on Hal Cato as CEO, “I needed someone who cared about the numbers, the marketing, we have had an amazing partnership, we share authority, but I am happy for him to be heading the operation” says Stevens.
Mistakes? “Underfunding (and over-promising) on too many capital projects. The start of the Cafe was was underinvested, it needed $1m but I tried to do it with $250,000, then two years ago the roof fell in, so we started again, this time we were properly funded”. Branding. “I was awful at this in the early days. Products were not branded properly, so we hired in experts who did the job far better than I. Indeed I realized in many areas it is better to get professional help than try and do it yourself”.
Though she does give herself credit for coming up with the name, Thistle Farms….inspiration coming, somewhat prosaically, from the Thistles growing near her first Sanctuary House. “It’s not pretentious, political, it doesn’t pigeonhole us, and the plant is hardy and resilient”.
So after over two decades of fighting the good fight, what keeps Stevens happy and motivated on her never ending cycle of travel, speaking, writing (two more books are in the pipeline) and spreading the word of Thistle Farms?
It’s simple… “the stories from the women I meet that we have helped, I get so fired up hearing them. Despite everything they are loving and kind, even though they are strangers. They make me realize they are the ‘news’ not what I see on my phone. By traveling around and meeting these women I hear lots of good news stories, that’s what keeps me going”.
With that Stevens is up and off to her next meeting. In the background the Cafe at Thistle Farms is noisy, buzzing and busy, the staff are happy and committed. The numbers of women that they can help may be small in relation to the size of problem they are dealing with, but for those lucky enough to be part of the Thistle Farms community the words of Booker T Washington come to mind: “Those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.”
Becca Stevens Q&A
Favorite food? I love free food. I’m on the road a lot and love the food offerings people make.
What book are you reading at the moment?. Rereading old novels my youngest son has finished.
What would be your perfect career outside running Thistle Farms? A carpenter.
Favorite musician or group? Levi Hummon.
Favorite book? A Wrinkle in Time.
What is the one thing that can always brighten your day? Walking.
Favorite Quote? Consider the lilies. Matthew 6:28.
Favorite Nashville restaurant (aside from your own)? PM
Who/what inspires you most and why? My husband. He is so faithful to his music writing, playing and writing every single day.
If you were President for one day, what would be your first ‘Executive Order’? So many, so little time. I would want years to reform.
What frustrates or annoys you the most? The Newsfeed on my phone.