This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
The “eternal flame” is one of humankind’s best-known symbols of hope, commitment, or consecration. Wikipedia details around 200 such flames burning all around the world, from Alabama to Zanzibar. Perhaps the oldest of these, at a Buddhist temple in Japan, has reportedly been flickering since 806 AD.
Some flames urge us to reflect on war, assassination, natural disaster, or genocide. Others are more hopeful, shining a light on diabetes research, nuclear nonproliferation, or even “the regeneration of humanity.”
In Nashville, Tenn., there’s a flame that doesn’t make the Wikipedia list. It’s not exactly eternal, since a new match is struck every morning without fail, but for more than 20 years, this daily routine of lighting a candle has been a symbol of sanctuary and hope for women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction.
Between Hippie and Holistic
It’s a fitting metaphor on many levels, because candles were the original product that built Thistle Farms, a social enterprise focused on the simple belief that “Love Heals.” At the core of the model is a two-year residential program that includes healthcare, counseling, education, employment, and much more – all at no cost to participants.
Most of the women in the program began experiencing sexual abuse before they were teenagers. Substance abuse typically started around age 13, and homelessness not long after.
Despite the bleak history and long odds, 75% of graduates are still enjoying “healthy, financially independent lives” five years after they graduate. Small wonder, then, that more than 100 women are on a waitlist at any given time.
The program costs about $36,000 a year – roughly 20% more than the cost of incarceration, though the experience could not be more different.
“Our model is based on trust and love,” says Valerie Holden, Senior Director of Marketing at Thistle Farms. “It sounds somewhere between hippie and holistic, I know. But it works. Women live together like families without an authority figure in the house. It is a sanctuary. It’s warm and inviting, where trust, accountability, and growth are not just valued, but expected.”
“A basic level of safety and security is the foundation. Then we build on it with 1:1 therapeutic treatment plans, goal setting, and resources that help each woman move from surviving to thriving.”
With 28 residential beds, plus a safe house, a program inside the Tennessee Prison for Women, and a growing network of allied programs around the country, it takes more than $6 million a year to run an organization like Thistle Farms – and the social enterprise brings in nearly 60% of that vital revenue.
In other words, without the support of spend-gooders buying its products, Thistle Farms could only serve about half the women it’s serving today.
Healing Takes Work
Becca Stevens, the founder of Thistle Farms, told us that social enterprise was a part of the model almost from the start.
“We started with the residential program in 1997 to address the homelessness, medical and therapeutic needs of survivors. But as women began to heal in those early years, they still couldn’t get a job because of their criminal records.”
So, just four years after launching the work, Becca gathered her women in a church basement to start pouring candles. More than just revenue to support the program, those candles offered vocational training and financial independence that could give survivors “the freedom to choose their own future.”
Candles were just the start, and today Thistle Farms today offers some 40 different products including home fragrances, soaps, lotions, and essential oils. What ties it all together is a focus on healing and wellness.
“We wanted to support our residents and graduates with work that would be healing for them,” Becca says. “We have always sought natural, premium ingredients so that the work environment, and the products themselves, would be healthy and positive for survivors.”
Or, as Valerie puts it: “Our products are as healthy and healing for the person using them as they are for the woman making them.”
Welcoming the Next Woman
If 100+ women at any given time are trying to get into the Nashville residential program, there’s literally no way to calculate the demand for similar programs nationwide. “The very nature of our mission means that these are women who are often forgotten by society, potentially homeless or living off the grid,” Valerie explains.
To help meet that demand, Becca Stevens and her team have begun helping sister organizations around the country apply the Thistle Farms model in their own neighborhoods. Currently the Thistle Farms Network comprises 44 residential programs with 309 beds available for survivors. Another 26 residential programs are in development.
And the impact doesn’t stop even there.
“The issues of sexual violence, trafficking, prostitution, addiction and systemic poverty aren’t limited by ZIP codes or borders,” Valerie says. With that in mind, Thistle Farms Global launched in 2014 with the mission of supporting social enterprises around the world focused on women’s dignity and economic freedom.
By working directly with producer groups in the developing world and connecting them to a customer base of 40,000 strong, Thistle Farms Global says it can return up to 60% of profits to artisan survivors – a much higher rate than even traditional fair trade models.
With all the new global partnerships, the online shop at Thistle Farms is becoming almost an Amazon of social enterprise products, including jewelry, clothing, bags, home textiles, coffee and tea, and more.
But while other products come and go, you’ll always find plenty of candles, the one product that started it all. And if you happen to drop by the Thistle Farms headquarters in Nashville, you’ll still find one of those candles burning, waiting to welcome the next woman coming off the streets.
“I remember coming into the program and realizing that for years, the candle was lit for me,” says Ty, who graduated from the residential program in 2015 and stayed on as Assistant Director of Manufacturing.
“Knowing that people loved me and were fighting for me long before I ever knew was humbling and I am forever grateful. Making our candles is the most important thing I do. Healing, hope, and unconditional love go into each one.”
Spend for good: You’ll need plenty of time to browse the online shop at Thistle Farms. Given the brand’s focus on healing, you don’t want to miss the curated selection of books, candles, oils, and spa products presented with wellness in mind.
Pledge for good: Every week we offer original reporting to help you create a better world with the money you’re spending, anyway. Click here to join the movement by taking the Spend-Gooder Pledge. All it takes is 30 seconds (and 0 dollars).