The Thistle Farms all-natural body balm. Credit: Thistle Farms.
Forty-something Katrina Robertson works alongside her daughter at Thistle Farms, where she serves as the National Sales Director for the Nashville-based bath and body care company. It sounds lovely, but her life wasn’t always so. Robertson actually spent more than 20 years on the street. Molested by a family member at age 11, by 20 she was addicted to crack cocaine and living in a literal hell: homeless, prostituting, in and out of jail, and being trafficked, abused, and raped. Unable to leave the streets and drugs behind, she instead left her two-week-old daughter to be raised by her mother.
But Robertson turned it all around, and now has her own home and is happily married. Her daughter graduated from college with a double major in communications and psychology and is pursuing a masters in psychology next. “It’s like a dream,” Robertson says of her life today. “I lived in a nightmare for so long, and then one day I woke up and I was in this dream.”
Through sales of the all-natural products, Thistle Farms helps survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction by providing job experience in manufacturing, sales, and marketing. What started as a company with just five women has grown— “body balm by body balm,” as founder Becca Stevens puts it—to employ nearly 70 today. In addition to that star product (available unscented or in fragrances like lemon sage and tea tree mint) Thistle Farms offers bath salts, soap, lip balm, and lotion.
And if healing products seem like a perfect fit, that’s by design. “We decided to do bath and body care products because we wanted to do something that was nurturing and healing for women,” says Stevens.
Also a victim of sexual abuse as a child, Stevens has spent much of the last two decades helping women get off the streets. In 1997 she started Magdalene, a two-year residency program that offers free housing, food, therapy, education, and job training. After noticing that almost all of the women in the Magdalene program had criminal records and no job history, Stevens realized that if they were going to stay off the streets, they needed help becoming financially independent—as women like Robertson know full well.
“When I got clean, I didn’t have a way to support myself,” says Robertson. “And women who come off the streets, who have survived by selling their bodies, will go back to that behavior.”
Not many employers are willing to give these women a chance. Abused by a family member at an early age, employee Shana Goodwin spent 22 years addicted to drugs and being trafficked across the country. Although she had earned a GED while in jail, her 167 arrests, lack of job history, and PTSD made her an unlikely candidate for any paid position. But given the opportunity to work at Thistle Farms, she took it. “Without Thistle Farms and Magdalene, I’d be dead somewhere. I’m sure of that,” says Goodwin.
Now a sales representative who helps manage more than 400 accounts, Goodwin recalls what it was like getting her first paycheck. “Wow! This is mine,” she remembers. “That was amazing to me.”
For Stevens, that’s the most important part of the help Thistle Farms provides: the chance to stand on your own two feet or to own a car or house. “Women at our company literally crawl out from under a bridge [and] own a house in a few years,” says Stevens. “[Through Thistle Farms] we now have economic leverage, which adds power to your voice.”
Spend a few minutes talking to Robertson or Goodwin, and you hear that power. You don’t hear a trace of the pain of their past, but strength, happiness, and pride for the lives they now lead. “I am a voice for women who don’t have a voice,” says Robertson. “It’s not about me being a victim anymore, but about me showing another lady that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”