Where women build new lives
For those with a history of prostitution and drug abuse, the Magdalene community offers a second chance.
(Page 2 of 2)
The sense of community among the women is palpable, whether at the business site or during a visit to the only residence that was newly built. Although Magdalene is funded only by grants and donations (no state or federal funds), furnishings in all four houses are new. This home has a cathedral ceiling, fireplace, and sunny inner courtyard.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"I wanted to treat people with dignity and respect, to have a lovely place where women could feel the extravagance of being loved, and that they are worth something," says Stevens, a mother of three and also chaplain at Vanderbilt University. She has raised $5 million for Magdalene, won awards for innovation and achievement, and been named Nashvillian of the Year.
Women in the houses are responsible for themselves (staff visit to run programs) and hold each other accountable.
"My recovery is very important to me, so if there is something going on we talk to each other about it," says Lisa S. At Magdalene for the second time after a relapse due to "running behind a man," Lisa came back when she realized that "he wasn't the one that cared about me, these ladies were."
With the models of caring, tenderness, and strength expressed by Stevens and program director Donna Grayer, the women learn to accept that they are worthy of love and capable of loving. That is evident when they embrace new residents.
For the first three months, newcomers are in treatment working on recovery from drugs. Medical and dental care, as well as basic education and computer skills, are provided. In-house programs offer a variety of classes given by volunteers, from life skills and parenting to art, dance, Bible study, and 12-step groups.
Religion is not a required element.
"If you are talking to people who have been in hell, they are on a spiritual path you need to be respectful of," Stevens says. "They are more honest than most people and have a lot to teach. You don't want people to think you have a Bible in your hand and something up your sleeve."
A weekly group session on spirituality run by therapist Jozuf Lyle draws 15 women this afternoon, and many eagerly join in. Dr. Lyle, who has worked with addicts for years, talks of their "real self - the child of God - that has been hidden under the programmed stuff" of their lives, and leads a moving, hour-long discussion on how to take responsibility, deal with negative images and attitudes, and not let the past be a deadweight. "My work is about your waking up," he says, "to believe more in the power that moves mountains" than in the mountain itself.
Some go back to old neighborhoods to encourage others. Magdalene has its own outreach, too, where the women set up tables, serve lunch, give out toiletry bags, and share information on safe houses and programs with women on the streets.
"Then if a call comes in - it's usually at 2 or 3 in morning when the dope runs out - we pick them up and take them to a safe place and get treatment started," says Regina Mullins, outreach coordinator.
But Magdalene's mission goes beyond helping the women. It is to change the culture so that prostitution is no longer acceptable. They work with police, for instance, on a "School for Johns" (a "John" is slang for a prostitute's customer) to discourage it. "Prostitution should not be considered a victimless crime, because the ladies are put in tremendous physical danger and emotional and mental harm," says Chief Serpas.
The program is having a ripple effect. Magdalene has helped start a community in Chattanooga, and another will open soon in South Carolina. Groups have visited from several states and Canada.
Hope is rising on the streets, too. When Magdalene opened its fourth house, with space for 8 women, 50 applied.
"There's a myth that once you are a prostitute you're never going to get better," Stevens says. "It's not true."