LEWISTON — First, organizers want to raise $25,000 to shore up the budget for the downtown Center for Wisdom’s Women drop-in center next year.

Then, it’s on to raising $1 million.

They hope to follow the model of a successful Nashville farm and open a house for women recovering from abuse, sex trafficking and addiction in the former convent near Kennedy Park, owned by St. Mary’s.

Women would commit to staying two years, rent-free. They’d learn life and job skills, and learn to work and live together.

It’s ambitious, and Klara Tammany thinks it could be wonderful.

“They help each other and life gets better,” said Tammany, the center’s executive director.

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Next week, Bates College, the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, the Center for Wisdom’s Women and others will host three days of events with the founder of Nashville’s Thistle Farms and two of its graduates to learn more about the program, its impact and mission.

“They are pretty widely known in the Episcopal world and the sex-trafficking world to provide a community where women can heal,” Tammany said.

Similar to what she’s envisioning for the local project being called Sophia’s House, she said Thistle Farms isn’t a shelter, though there is housing, and it isn’t a treatment center, though there is access to those services.

“It’s a community of women,” Tammany said.

The Center for Wisdom’s Women, then called Wisdom’s Center, was founded by local nuns in 1999 and was taken over by volunteers in 2008 when the nuns weren’t able to keep it going. It’s a casual space with regular programming such as cooking classes and arts and crafts and room for meditation. It offers a simple breakfast and a shower and volunteers who just listen.

One of the draws, Tammany said, is a monthly bag with free items, including shampoo and deodorant, that can’t be bought with food stamps or other state funds. Last month, 400 people visited the center and it gave away 95 bags.

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“If they have trouble or they’re lonely, they remember we’re here,” she said.

The idea for Sophia’s House started to come together last fall.

“Since we took over from the nuns, I’d known there was a need for that kind of housing and recovery for women; I didn’t know how to do it,” Tammany said. “I’d known the convent down the street was empty. I’d had my eyes on it for 10 years, but I didn’t know what for.”

Then, the center received a $40,000 bequest that could only be spent toward capital purchases. And St. Mary’s agreed to sell the property at 143 Blake St. And then Tammany attended a conference at Thistle Farms meant to teach others how to duplicate its program.

Suddenly, “this small idea just got pretty big,” she said.

Thistle Farms has three houses with five to six women each and a waiting list of 100 people. Eighty percent of the people who commit to the two years stay that whole time. 

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“They never ask when a woman comes there, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ They never ask, ‘What did you do?’ The questions is, ‘What happened to you?'” Tammany said.

The large, brick convent on the corner of Blake and Walnut streets was built in 1913 to house the Sisters of Notre Dame, but other orders later lived there. An initial consultant’s report, pulled together by The Genesis Fund and the Bobcat Consulting Group, a group of Bates College students, determined that the bones of the structure were still solid, Tammany said. It estimated a full renovation at $1 million.

“The pipes burst one winter and warped the beautiful wood floors on the first floor, (but otherwise) the basic original beauty of the house is still there,” Tammany said. “The karma of that space is beautiful.”

Plans call for one small apartment on the first floor, a hostel for volunteers and common space. The second floor would have four small apartments and more common space. On the third floor, there would be six bedrooms and two to three bathrooms with more common space for those in the two-year program. Rental income from the five apartments would fund the operation.

Tammany said she pictured those units being rented to older, single women on fixed incomes who want to live independently but also embrace the philosophy of the house’s broader mission and who want to be part of that community.

“There are three of us already who want to do this and live there,” she said.

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Space in the basement would be devoted to a “social enterprise,” a small business that the women could create and work in.

The center has a VISTA volunteer dedicated to Sophia’s House who started in September and will look for donors inside and outside the community. Tammany anticipates one-third of funding could come through historic preservation tax credits. The project could start with raising about $500,000.

Ideally, she’d love to open in 2019, the center’s 20th anniversary.

But first, there’s the more modest fundraising goal: 250 sponsors (the center calls them “SHEROs”) and $25,000. It’s already more than 100 SHEROs and $11,900 toward that goal. Tammany plans a big final push in December.

Then, she’ll dream big.

“Thistle Farms is a way out and our Sophia’s House could be a way out,” she said. “I think we could do this.”

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The founder of Thistle Farms, a social enterprise for women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction, will discuss her work at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, in the Edmund S. Muskie Archives at Bates College at 70 Campus Ave.

An author, popular speaker and Episcopal priest, Becca Stevens offers the talk “Burning Desire: Our Longing for Justice and Hope for Healing” in a forum sponsored by the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates. 

The event is open to the public at no cost.

“I’ve known Becca for almost 30 years, and she continues to amaze me,” Darby Ray, director of the Harward Center, said in a news release. “She is a phenomenally brave and talented woman — both a visionary and a down-to-earth practitioner. She is also a fantastic speaker.”

Stevens was named by the White House as one of 15 Champions of Change for violence against women in 2011 and the 2014 Humanitarian of the Year by the Small Business Council of America. She’ll be joined by two graduates of the Thistle Farms program.

In addition to speaking at Bates on Thursday, the three will be at The Center for Wisdom’s Women at 97 Blake St. from 10 a.m. to noon and from 5 to 7 p.m., as part of its “Wise and Strong Women Speak!” series on Friday, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday for the “Love Heals” conference and at Trinity Episcopal Church at 10 a.m. Sunday.


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