Photo Courtesy of sewanee.edu
By Ivana Porashka
On October 1, the University welcomed Reverend Becca Stevens (C’85) founder of Thistle Farms as part of the “Know Your Worth Conference”. The conference was the result of a partnership between the Office of Civic Engagement and the South Cumberland Community Fund to recognize the impact of rural non-profits.
Stevens is admired for her work with homeless women, women struggling with addiction, and victims of sex trafficking and sexual violence.
After graduating from Sewanee in 1985, she enrolled in Vanderbilt Divinity School where she became an ordained Episcopal priest in 1991. She received Nashvillian of the Year in 2000, was inducted into the Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013, and was recognized as a CNN Hero in 2016.
“Community can heal people,” said Stevens as she gave her audience countless examples of women who did not relapse, did not give up on living, and did not fall back into their addictions, all because they knew they had a support system, a job, a home.
Her presentation captured the message behind Thistle Farms, summarized its history and meaning, and motivated her listeners to get involved if they felt passionate. Thistle Farms’ mission is “to heal, empower, and employ women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. We do this by providing safe and supportive housing, the opportunity for economic independence, and a strong community of advocates and partners.”
To foster this economic independence, many of the women going through the program make products such as essential oils, candles, lotions, and soaps for Thistle Farms. Through this, the women are able to earn money and a sense of place within society. As Stevens playfully pointed out, “Someone with a divinity degree shouldn’t be running a bath and body works shop”; however, the bath and body works shop is a way to communicate that “love is the most powerful force for change in the world”, a motto the company believes in.
Stevens explained that all of the money made from the Thistle Farm sales goes directly toward helping women battling addiction and aiding in the healing of sex trafficking victims, and expressed her frustration with people who are interested in the cause but not willing to contribute. “People will come up to me all the time and say ‘I love what you’re doing. You’re so inspirational and I support your work’…and then they go and buy their candles somewhere else!”
Stevens also created The Welcome Project, which is based in a refugee camp in Greece. Syrian women take the cloth of the life jackets worn by refugees as they fled and weave it into welcome mats. The nonprofit provides a platform for the women to sell the mats and returns all profits to aid with basic needs, such as food, education, and transportation.
Overall, Stevens’s message is loud and clear: “Love heals.” She repeatedly emphasized that change could only take place if a strong sense of caring, connecting, and community was present. She is committed to providing women with opportunities to turn their life around permanently.
By giving them temporary housing, meaningful work, a purpose, and a place to be together, Stevens gives these women a chance to restart their lives. Whether it be completing their education, regaining custody of their children, or being clean and sober, love and support catalyzes these women’s successes.