Nonprofits have been some of the hardest-hit organizations across the country during the pandemic. With a severe decline in fundraising avenues, many organizations are pivoting their efforts toward alternate funding channels. Nashville’s Thistle Farms has risen to the occasion, turning its focus to online product sales, adapting its business model, and continuing its commitment to guidance, relief, and safe and supportive housing for women survivors of human trafficking, prostitution and drug addiction. The organization is a means of rehabilitation for those who’ve undergone a lifetime of trauma. “We give [these women] meaningful work and help them recover financially, so they can be independent and live on their own and not have to rely on a bad relationship (or multiple bad relationships) to support themselves,” says Thistle Farms CEO Hal Cato.
“It’s not a facility or a treatment center; it’s truly a home,” Hal continues, referring to the five residences that house women who are brought in off the street. The program allows them to move in at no cost. Thistle Farms also provides wraparound services for health care, therapy and job training, getting the women into a safe place, jumpstarting the healing process, and giving them employment opportunities in one of their seven social enterprises, including their product manufacturing and shipping facilities, and the Café at Thistle Farms.
As with most nonprofits, the quarantine has altered many of the day-to-day program operations. It has also had a significant impact on the Thistle Farms waiting list — there are currently more than 100 women hoping for a spot in the program. “We have not been able to bring new women over for employment for the last six weeks,” Hal relays. In part, this delay is due to an inability to help current graduates move into apartments. “No one is moving right now,” he laments.
Unfortunately, this year’s graduation festivities are also paused, at least temporarily. Hal continues, “It’s sad. We normally have this big rocking graduation celebration, which we had to cancel this year. It was supposed to be on May 20, and it’s our 20th graduating class, so we were making a big deal out of it. We had to cancel it, like every other graduation in America. But the graduates understand; we’ll do it again when we can. Hopefully, we will reschedule it for the fall.”
The graduating women will remain in their respective Thistle Farms homes until the quarantine is over. Still, the unfortunate side effect is there’s no room for additional women to join the program. Thankfully, it appears they will be able to start onboarding soon. “I can’t wait to move into my place, which I will be doing Friday!” says Kristina Smith, a manufacturing team leader and member of the 2020 graduating class. “I’m looking forward to sharing my story with women all around the world.” The graduates are sharing their stories on a local level, too, as efforts are made to prepare the incoming class. “We’ve been doing a lot of Zoom sessions and online courses with all of the women,” Hal says, “anything we can do to help them continue to work on their job readiness.”
While COVID-19 is causing its fair share of challenges, it’s also presenting opportunities for growth. “Interestingly enough, on our residential side, it’s never gone smoother,” Hal tells us, “because the women are quarantined at home, and they’re not getting out in the community or going to visit family members that are stressors for them. They’re getting a lot of love, so it’s been a beautiful time for us and for the women — particularly those who are living in one of our homes.”
“We are so loved and cared for,” adds Michelle Holland, a 2020 graduate, and part of the logistics team that gets packages out the door. “Phone calls, meals, groceries, weekly check-ins — they have never stopped listening to us.”
And though the Café at Thistle Farms is temporarily closed (The cafe and the shop reopen next Monday, May 18, for breakfast and lunch.), that hasn’t stopped the program, or its employees, from moving forward. “For all of the graduates, and the women who work in our program in the café, we are maintaining full employment,” Hal tells us. “We haven’t had to furlough anyone or lay anybody off. Their jobs are safe and protected, and we’re finding ways for them to be involved. In our café, even though it’s closed to the public, we’re making meals for Second Harvest and delivering them three days a week out to the community.”
The Nashville community is reciprocating in a big way. Through donations, the Thistle Farms staff was able to purchase bicycles for the women in residence, offering them an opportunity to get out a bit more. “I don’t want them just sitting at home,” says Hal of his and the staff’s tireless efforts to help the women remain active and employed. “If you’re in recovery and struggling with addiction,” he says, “and suddenly you’re quarantined at home, and you can no longer go to AA and NA meetings — that could be a recipe for disaster. We haven’t had a single relapse during this period, so that’s wonderful.”
And despite a smaller skeleton crew, Thistle Farms is still making and shipping products. In fact, their online sales have been at an all-time high, with March and April serving as their most successful months outside of the Christmas season. Hal admits hand soap and healing oils are big sellers at the moment, a byproduct of the current state of affairs, but candles also top the list. “People are giving gifts,” Hal explains. “It’s amazing to see the percentage of online orders that have a gift card attached. And it’s stuff like ‘thinking of you,’ ‘hope you’re hanging in there,’ ‘sending love,’ and ‘we’re going to get through this.’ It’s really cool.”
Thinking outside the box, the Thistle Farms staff continues to develop new and dynamic ways to engage the women it employs and extend appreciation for all of the donations and assistance during this complicated time. “For those employees who aren’t able to work from home, because they don’t have the kind of job that you can telecommute,” Hal informs us, “we’ve assigned a certain number of notes they are expected to write each day to customers and donors, thanking them for believing in Thistle Farms.” Since the quarantine went into effect, the women have succeeded in writing to more than 10,000 customers. “What’s neat,” explains Hal, “is the customers are starting to write back. They’re taking pictures of those notecards and posting them on Instagram, saying, ‘look at this!’ The women here love that because they’re writing to someone who believes in them.”
Thistle Farms is gearing up for an exciting post-quarantine future, especially with the influx of new members. Kristina says she’s always moved by seeing new women come into the program. “I love how we always make sure to let that new woman coming in know we’ve been lighting the candle for her until she could find her way to us,” she says. Her classmate Michelle adds that it’s all about providing hope for new women coming in. “I’m strong now,” she says. “I also know how to love and care for someone I may not know, and to show them the same unconditional care and love they showed me.”
So how can we help support the women of Thistle Farms until we are past the height of the pandemic? “The best way is to help keep our team employed!” Hal tells us. “Go online and purchase a product for yourself or a friend. Every product sold helps another woman heal.”
All photos courtesy of Thistle Farms. Shop Thistle Farms online here.
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