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When the Rev. Becca Stevens came to Vanderbilt in 1995 to serve as the chaplain for St. Augustine’s Chapel, she was interested in starting an outreach program.
Little did she know her desire to assist women in recovery from a life of prostitution and drug abuse would turn into a non-profit organization that is a national model.
That organization, Magdalene House, is a free, two-year residential program that provides women a safe place to recover.
“I didn’t know it was going to be such a big deal when I started it,” Stevens said. “I was going to open one house as part of my outreach. I wanted to help women in a really dignified way and respect them and all they had gone through.
“It has proven to be life changing for us and the women we have helped.”
Since starting Magdalene House in 1997, Stevens has opened five more houses in the Nashville area. Many cities throughout the country have modeled programs after it.
“It is a real ministry and a beautiful way of treating these communities so that they heal,” she said.
About 125 women have come through the door of Magdalene to follow a structured schedule that consists of individualized therapy, a 12-step program, group meetings, spirituality classes and financial planning courses.
The program is funded by donations and private grants as well as money from the United Way of Metropolitan Nashville, one of the federations featured in the Vanderbilt Community Giving Campaign. Responsible for hundreds of initiatives that address some of Nashville’s most critical needs, the United Way serves as an umbrella to unite groups and communities to affect change and improve lives.
Stevens likes the way United Way works for her organization.
“The reason we are committed to United Way is because the way that organization works, they hold people accountable,” she said. “It is one of the few places that require a group, once you receiving funding, to report back to them. People can trust that if they are giving to a group that is part of United Way that it is watching how we spend our money, monitoring our statistics and looking at outcomes.”
The impact Magdalene has had on the community is immeasurable.
“This is a real ministry and a beautiful way of treating this community of women so that they can heal. And it’s not just a ministry for those participating in the program. We have an amazing impact on the community. Because our statistics are so good and there is so much hope, I think it inspires everyone.”
Gwen Cockrell can attest to that. She is a recent graduate of the program. “I lived on the streets for 10 years,” said Cockrell. “The program has done so much for me and I see things so differently now.
“For so long I didn’t think anybody cared or that there was any help for me. I thought the world would say, ‘This was a choice you made.’ But there are people who care. It takes a community to bring women off of the streets. We made some bad choices, but we need people who care and love us to bring us back and give us hope.”
Cockrell, a single mother of four, has been drug free for nearly four years. She works with Stevens at St. Augustine’s Chapel, facilitates groups at Magdalene House and works at Thistle Farms, the non-profit business that creates natural bath and body products and is operated by the women of Magdalene. All sales benefit the program.
Because the program is so extensive, Cockrell, like many of the women enrolled have been able to receive therapy and  receive education and job skills.
“I have found that Magdalene is my foundation and I find it necessary to give back every day,” said Cockrell. “I am grateful for all the people who believe in this program and chose to support us.
“I am grateful for the vision Becca had. It changed my life.”
Magdalene residents are not just local women. Participants have come from Georgia, Michigan, Virginia, Wisconsin, Florida and Honduras.
“Magdalene is a positive witness to this community,” said Stevens. “A compassionate, loving community can be a powerful source of change.”
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