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Where women build new lives

For those with a history of prostitution and drug abuse, the Magdalene community offers a second chance.

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When the Rev. Becca Stevens began visiting Nashville jails a decade ago, one visit turned into a high school reunion of sorts: One of her former classmates was the police officer at the desk that day, and another was a prostitute behind bars.

Struck by the thought that "all of us could be in another's position," Ms. Stevens, an Episcopal priest, pondered what she could do to make a difference.

In 1997, Stevens founded Magdalene, a two-year residential community for women with a criminal history of prostitution and drug abuse. Conceived as a place of sanctuary and recovery - to provide safety, discipline, and an unconditional love that the women have never known - it has apparently worked wonders.

The community has grown from one to four houses, plus a new beauty-products business where a number of the women work. More than 50 women have turned their lives around - to be "clean," hopeful, and productive.

"I was 42 years old and didn't have a life," says Clemmie Greenlee, who was on drugs and on the streets for some 20 years. "God woke me up and I found He has work for me to do." A 2003 graduate of Magdalene, Ms. Greenlee is now married and working in the community to counter gang violence among youths. She also runs a recovery house for substance abusers. An exuberant woman who exudes joy, Greenlee adds, "They see me going strong, and it gives them hope."

Other graduates have gone on to school, married, or found jobs, and some have been reunited with their children.

Ronal Serpas, chief of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, sees Magdalene as "a tremendous and important work." While the police do their duty and arrest people, "I believe rehabilitation is the answer," he says.


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