HARTFORD, CT, April 13, 2012 – Salima Etoka ’15 sensed a common thread between the country that she left behind when she was 8 years old, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Magdalene, a residential community in Nashville, TN, where she and eight other Trinity students visited during Spring Break.
“The Congo was war-torn and violent. Rape was used as a weapon against women,” said Etoka, who now lives with her family in Boise, ID. “Women have the right to live without the fear of being raped.”
It’s a lesson that’s driven home to the residents of Magdalene each and every day. Magdalene is a community for women
who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction, violence and abuse. Founded in 1997 by the Rev. Becca Stevens, Magdalene is supported by Thistle Farms, a nonprofit bath and body-care business run by the female residents.
At Magdalene, five women live together in each of six homes for two years, free of charge and with no resident staff. After two years and having gone through a 12-step rehabilitative program based on 24 guiding principles, the women graduate and most go on to live productive and meaningful lives. With more than 200 women having completed the program, the success rate is 76 percent.
The nine Trinity students, accompanied by College Chaplain Allison Read and Laura Lockwood, director of Trinity’s Women & Gender Resource Action Center, were inspired to visit Magdalene after hearing Stevens speak at the school a year ago.
“She was an incredibly caring and warm and charismatic person,” said Lockwood. “And she runs a nationally recognized program dealing with the transformation of lives of women.”
Stevens is an Episcopal priest who serves as chaplain at St. Augustine’s at Vanderbilt University. The author of eight books, Stevens has been a guest on many news programs and received numerous honors, including being named “Nashvillian of the Year,” “Tennessean of the Year” and a White House “Champion of Change.” To date, Stevens has raised more than $13 million for the organizations she supports. Her blog is available at: beccastevens.org.
The program at Magdalene is designed so that the women are accountable to each other, explained Read. “There isn’t a universal prescription. It’s tailored to meet the needs of each individual woman.”
Read said that the Trinity students who volunteered to devote part of their Spring Break to visiting Magdalene represent different departments and disciplines, among them, education, women’s studies, religion, public policy, human rights, sociology and chemistry. “It was such a thrill to be with them,” said Read. “They are amazing students – open, engaging and responsive.”
The Trinity students, who were joined by volunteers from Vanderbilt, spent some of their time cleaning vacant storefronts that will be converted into a café. The students also spoke at length with the residents of Magdalene, who “were very open about their experiences,” and also toured the 11,000-square foot Thistle Farms, where the natural handmade body-care products are produced.
All proceeds from the sale of the products, which are sold at www.Thistlefarms.org and at more than 200 retail outlets, support the rehabilitative program. The idea behind the name is that thistles grow on the streets and in the alleys where the women of Magdalene walk.
Despite its prickly appearance, the thistle’s royal and purple center makes it a mysterious and gorgeous flower.
“Literally, the products are cosmetic, but they’re really about the transformation of who the women are, where they came from and how they see the world,” said Read. “They represent the discovery and expression of beauty and each of the women is able to identify with that.”
In addition to Etoka, the Trinity group included: Shawna Berk ’13, Sarah Kacevich ’13, Ambar Paulino ’15, Diana Ryan ’14, Mia Schulman ’14, Sean Snyder ’13, Carlos Velazquez ’14, and William Yale ‘12.
Snyder, of Cottage Grove, OR, described the Magdalene program as phenomenal. “What they are able to do for these women is fantastic.” He said the female residents were completely open and “didn’t interact with us any differently” than they would have with any other group. “I was surprised by how willing they were to talk about what they had been through.”
To learn more about Magdalene, read Find Your Way Home: Words from the Street, Wisdom from the Heart, written by the women of Magdalene with Becca Stevens.
Students pictured on home page, from left to right: Ambar Paulino '15 and Diana Ryan '14.