“Let’s start outside, because we have a lot out here that people don’t get to see, or that they don’t know about,” says Jennifer Clinger as she begins a determined march around the whitewashed, single-story building on Charlotte Pike that houses the Thistle Stop Cafe. Clinger works for Thistle Farms, a social enterprise based out of this site and run by the women of Magdalene House, a residential program founded by Episcopal priest Becca Stevens in 1997 for women who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and life on the streets. On any given day, she is more than ready to give a tour. She does not need a cheat sheet, she’s got the facts down.
Magdalene House and Thistle Farms have taken over this little corner of Charlotte, developing their own line of natural bath and body products, handcrafted paper products and more that they create by hand and sell through a storefront next to the café. Like the other women here, Clinger is a graduate of Magdalene House (class of 2012). And as she tells visitors about the café and the other businesses that encircle it, she weaves in her own story of revival and success as well.
From a custom-designed rain catcher by Ben Caldwell on the building’s east corner to a small garden and a patio on the side and out back, not one scrap of usable space goes to waste. That same sense of thrift is visible within, where milk cartons are shredded to be pulped and repurposed into gift cards, bookmarks and notebooks, and women’s lives are rebuilt from tatters to evolve into something as beautiful as the crafts they make, if not more so.
“The whole idea here is that the community is coming together. Everyone has a voice,” Clinger says in her laughing growl. “The building was bought with funds that were raised in 2010, and we own it outright. And by the end of June 2014, we will have reached $1 million in sales.”
Thistle may be the name, but lavender is the game around this place. Lots and lots of lavender, from candles to scented bath products. The smell hits you as soon as you open the doors to the office side of the complex, but Clinger and the rest of the smiling women have grown accustomed to it. You can also expect to shake a lot of hands here, and you’ll never find a downcast look.
“See that over there? That’s our goal thermometer,” Clinger says, pointing to an old-school paper thermometer on the wall, with a red temperature line nearing the top. “Want to pick up some products while you’re here? Come on, put us over.”
A journey in miles and more
The hard sell is nothing new for Clinger, but these days she’s peddling bath sales and free-trade jewelry, not her own body. And she’s doing it with a smile. A very different life from a few years ago, when she found herself at Magdalene House strung out on heroin and ready for it to just be over.
“I’d been on the street, using heroin, for 18 years,” Clinger says. “It was my only comfort. I had so much pain, shame and grief; my heart was so cold and hard. But the healing process, reading Becca’s books, helped me change all that. We believe that love heals, and for me that has happened.”
As she will tell you, it was a long way from there to here. Clinger’s life flatlined early, with a father she describes as “stern and strict,” and an uncle who was abusive as well. A loving mother eased the pain, but by age 12 she was a regular drug user and decided to quit school and enjoy life on the road. She landed in Los Angeles, and was quickly scooped up by sexual predators.
“I was a young, stupid child. They fed me full of drugs and did things to me I did not know were physically possible,” she recalls. “I was up and down the coast for a couple of years, and doing horrible things to support my addiction. Then I met a man who I thought was going to rescue me, and wound up pregnant. I turned 17, and we got married.”
Her husband was a good provider, and at first she and her son were OK. Then at 19 she lost a second child and, as she puts it, “it all went dark.”
“I sent my son back to my mother, divorced my husband and went to work in the sex industry. I started out in gentleman’s clubs, always looking for something outside of myself to make me feel good. The drugs increased, and the clubs turned into the streets and jumping into strangers’ cars. It was high risk, brutal and abusive. I thought I would never get out. I realized that my legacy was, I was going to die a whore.”
Hope and healing in Nashville
From the streets of Ohio she managed to get to Nashville and Magdalene House, and once there was able to detox from heroin, face down the PTSD from her life on the streets and adjust to the horror of it all. She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t sleep. Eventually, she was able to do both, and from there stepped into a life where she could “live with commitment, think kindly, and love unconditionally.”
Oh, and along the way Clinger became a one-woman bandwagon for all things Thistle Farms. She also squeezes in the occasional trip to Georgia, North Carolina, Seattle, Denver and Ecuador. Yes, as in the one in South America.
“We’re on the road all the time,” Clinger laughs. “We are building a lot of partnerships around the world. The No. 1 cause of human traffic is poverty. People sell their daughters because they think they are giving them a better life, when in fact they’re just selling them into sex slavery. We are working with women in Mumbai who make jewelry, then ship it to other women in Southern California for distribution around the United States. We also have bags from Ecuador, water bags from Kenya, geranium spray from Rwanda, and products from Ghana. This way they earn money, and they can keep their children at home and safe.”
In addition to its growing roster of imported goods, the Nashville operation churns out candles, bath salts and other bath and body products, all by hand. Income from these, as well as from Stevens’ books, fuels the enterprise, which gets no outside assistance other than volunteer labor and donations. Those come in all shapes and sizes, from sweat equity in the café to an elevator and a functional still used to diffuse the essential oils from lavender, sage, lemon grass and other herbs.
“Isn’t that great, a still in a room full of addicts and alcoholics? At least we’re using it for good purposes,” Clinger laughs.
A chemist creates the oil mixtures for each product, and the raw materials are grown everywhere from the grounds of Monroe Harding Academy to the Benedictine convent near Sewanee. With products in 376 stores, including more than 70 Whole Foods outlets, demand continues to rise. In fact, it probably won’t be long before a new or expanded facility is needed. In the meantime, the full-court press to get people in the doors, shopping online and otherwise plugged in will never let up. The Thistle workers take it all in stride, Clinger says, focusing on one day at a time.
“We see residential facilities like Magdalene popping up all over the country,” she says. “We have those people in here, and we teach them everything we know. There are a lot of things that I believe will be modeled after this social enterprise and sanctuary. We even have house parties — Becca calls them ‘Tupperware parties with a conscience.’ We have monthly concerts in the café. We make our paper products. We just keep making the business happen.”
Along the way, she adds, “People just keep showing up. And when they do, we just say, ‘welcome to the circle,’ and let them get to work.”
As for Clinger, she’s going to focus a bit on twin grandchildren born in late May, and keep her bags packed and passport ready.
“We’re evolving all the time, and who knows what agencies we’ll be working with next?” she says. “I love travel, but all my life I was running from or to something, instead of just taking the journey. Now I travel all the time, but it’s for a good cause. I’ve landed in the perfect spot.”