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story.lead_photo.caption Residents of Magdalene House wash dishes in the modern farmhouse-style kitchen. The mission of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Magdalene House is a sanctuary for women who have experienced sexual trauma, exploitation, trafficking and substance abuse addiction. Residents share bedroom spaces, but the house is designed with multiple private nooks that allow for personal reflection and meditation. - Photo by Lara Hightower

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church offers a sanctuary in Fayetteville for women who have experienced sexual trauma, exploitation, trafficking and substance abuse addiction.

When it opened this fall, Magdalene House reached capacity almost immediately. By February, all eight beds will be filled, and a growing wait list shows the need for such a resource is high in Northwest Arkansas.

This does not come as a surprise to the Rev. Lowell Grisham and the Rev. Suzanne Stoner, leaders of the church and the people who spearheaded the efforts to open the doors at Magdalene House. Grisham said the pair’s eyes were opened to the need when they started to minister to women at the Northwest Arkansas Community Correction Center in Fayetteville.

“An Episcopalian from Little Rock came to me and said, ‘My daughter is in the prison down the street from you. Can you take her communion?’ So Suzanne and I took her communion, and she brought her pod mate, and it just felt great,” Grisham remembered. “And she said, ‘Could we do this again?’ We did that again, and she said, ‘I’ve been talking back there. I think people would really like it if you would bring communion here regularly.’”

Grisham said, that after consulting with Maggie Capel, the correction center warden, representatives of St. Paul’s started delivering the Eucharist to the center every Sunday. From that point forward, the relationship bloomed: Grisham and Stoner soon were performing baptisms and baptismal reaffirmations. Kathy McGregor, a St. Paul’s parishioner, formed the Prison Stories Project and brought artists and writers into area correctional facilities to help women and men tell the stories of the journeys that brought them to incarceration.

“We started asking these women, you know, ‘Where do you go after you get out?’” Grisham said. “And so often, they were going back to places that were just like where they left and got into trouble.

“One of the women who had been in our Prison Stories project went home. Nobody knows what happened, but she ended up with a hole in her vein and too much stuff in her system. She died of an overdose either accidentally or on purpose, and it just broke our hearts. We did her [funeral] service, and we said, ‘We’ve got to do something.’ Suzanne found this incredible model in Nashville started by an Episcopalian priest.”

The Rev. Becca Stevens was that priest. She opened the first Magdalene House in Nashville, Tenn., 20 years ago, a model that’s been successfully replicated in several other parts of the country.

“We jokingly call Rev. Stoner ‘Mother Magdalene’ because she was the main driving force for making sure this project happened and getting people on board,” said Amy Hard-wick, executive director of Magdalene House. “Going through the heartbreak of losing somebody that you’ve gotten to know and grown to care for was what started this. Once Suzanne got to know more about the Magdalene program in Nashville, that clinched the deal and allowed her to speak very eloquently about it to folks back here.”

Fundraising started nearly two years ago, and the church was able to purchase and renovate a home to serve eight women.

The Magdalene model is a two-year program that offers women counseling, medical and dental services, exposure to Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous programs and educational and job training opportunities. The goal is to put them on the road to healing from the trauma and addiction they have experienced in their past.

“When you have an addiction that’s triggered by trauma, it takes a long time to heal from that trauma,” Hardwick said. “You don’t just treat the addiction — you treat the root cause of that, as well, and that takes a commitment.”

“All of the women in my study really spoke to the need to have a program specifically for women who had experienced prostitution, sex abuse and trafficking,” said Joyce, Magdalene House’s program director, who requested her name be changed due to the sometimes dangerous nature of the work — the location of Magdalene House is kept private for the same reason. Joyce has three degrees in social work, a history of working with women who have experienced trauma, victimization and sexual violence, and has conducted research on the subject in an urban area.

“A lot of times, a lot of these women are shuffled between homeless shelters, domestic abuse shelters, rape crisis centers — all serving important functions, but not really meeting the level of need that this population has. What Magdalene House does is provide two years of longterm care and allows them to live with other women who have experienced what they have. That ability to share and process these experiences is important to these women. It helps to reduce the shame and stigma and allows them to connect with each other.”

Hardwick said there are a variety of ways women can be referred to the organization.

“We anticipate that, going forward over the years, a significant portion of our residents will probably have come from incarceration,” she said. “But it’s not a requirement, and that’s definitely not always going to be the case. We’ve received referrals from a lawyer, who was a former judge up in Benton County. We’ve received referrals from the Benton County jail, [from] private individuals calling on behalf of somebody else, and private individuals calling for themselves, because they know they need help. We don’t require people to go through a specific route to get to us.”

Because a core goal of the program is emotional health, there are a variety of activities and regimens built in to the daily and weekly schedules to help facilitate that goal. Although there is some variability in each week’s schedule, the basic activities stay the same each week.

Each day, the women start their morning with a 30-minute meditation. Fitness is almost always a part of the day, with the women either visiting a local gym, which donated memberships to the organization; participating in Zumba classes on site, thanks to a volunteer from the University of Arkansas faculty; or joining a yoga session. In-house support groups are a regular occurrence, and the Rape Crisis Center offers a trauma support group. Classes in journaling, art, poetry and the enneagram are offered by volunteers on-site. Equine therapy at a local farm is a popular option, and each woman has individual biweekly therapy sessions. Group trips to Target, the movie theater, Crystal Bridges, the library and other area options are often on the schedule for the weekends.

Eventually, Hardwick said, Magdalene House will introduce a social enterprise component, with an eye toward preparing the women for employment once they’re out of the program. Rogelio Garcia Contreras, director of social innovation at the University of Arkansas, is working with UA instructors and students in tandem with the organization to develop some ideas. Under consideration is a computer coding program, a business that will cater to those women who want to work with their hands and a sex trafficking awareness and prevention program.

“Residents would run the business side of [the prevention program],” Hardwick explained. “The idea is that we would contract out with school districts, police departments, hotels and motels, trucking companies and university and community college campuses to train employees how to spot and prevent sexual trafficking. If our residents wanted to contribute some content, they could, but that’s never going to be a requirement. We don’t ever want them to feel required to tell their story.”

Hardwick said community members already have been incredibly supportive of the program, but there’s always room for more support. A packet on the local organization’s website offers suggestions for possible roles and monetary donations — the church still has about $100,000 outstanding on its initial investment into the home and renovation.

Hardwick is hopeful the Northwest Arkansas Magdalene House will prove to be as successful as the models that have gone before.

“The program in Nashville has a very, very low recidivism rate,” she said. “I think the last report that they sent out showed a 100 percent completion rate.”

“This program hits the housing need, the mental health needs, the physical health needs [and] the community aspects,” Joyce said. “It gives [the women in the program] the opportunity to clean up their legal and criminal history. It focuses on education and job training, with the ultimate goal that they will graduate into the community, upwardly mobile and independent. That’s my vision for our residents.”

“These ladies are wonderful,” Hardwick said. “They’re very engaging, kind people who are working so hard to recover from the trauma that they experienced.”

Lara Jo Hightower can be reached by email at lhightower@ .

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