WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
for a woman whose heroic spirit was tested and shown as a model to all in Shelby County and beyond:
What does the face of trauma, addiction, prostitution look like? Look in the mirror. It could be mine.
That’s what Sandra Ferrell realized in 2013 as she sat in St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral listening to Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, a Nashville community for women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. As Becca discussed the well-established link between childhood abuse and prostitution. Sandra realized that if not for her loving family, she could easily be that woman on the streets.
Filled with gratitude for the grace she received in her life, she knew that she must help other women who did not have the support she had experienced. Right then Lisieux Community was born. In operation since 2014, it provides support and education for women who have survived trauma, addiction, and prostitution.
At age two, Sandra, the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, was left regularly in the care of a trusted congregant so her mother and older siblings could pick cotton to help support the family. “Be good and do what the man says,” her mother unsuspectingly told Sandra. So she did. She was sexually abused for two years. Believing that what adults said was always true, she never told her parents.
Abuse began again at age 8 and was attempted yet again when she was 12. She never told. She never recovered from this abuse, never reached emotional maturity.
When her children were 12 and 16, she was unable to manage their behavior. She took them to a counselor who, recognizing Sandra’s deep trauma, said, “We can help you, too.” “I don’t need help,” Sandra said but with guidance, she checked into Lakeside Hospital for a week of intensive therapy and then began the long road to recovery.
Sandra’s children grew up and Sandra retired from a successful career then worked another 5 years. But she never forgot her own trauma. Leaving paid work, she became a volunteer at Caritas Village which was established by Woman of Achievement recipient Onie Johns to build community and break down economic and racial barriers that separate people. There, after her sudden flash of insight, Sandra told Onie that she wanted to provide support to women on the streets. Onie mentioned the name of a man Sandra needed to meet. That very day he showed up at Caritas for lunch, listened to Sandra’s dream and said, “You’re doing it now.” So, she started.
Sandra believes that God opens a door and, though you don’t know what’s next, you walk through and figure out what to do. And so it was with the founding of Lisieux Community. She would tell one person what Lisieux need. That person would say yes and then bring another person who would then bring another. Each person was just the right person who did what needed to be done.
The Lisieux Community started as a residential program on North Parkway. But women often did not stay long. According to Sandra, they had no trust. That facility was closed and in February 2019, Sandra with her volunteers took the program directly to the streets.
Not just any streets but dangerous Mitchell Heights.
Just off the Summer Avenue corridor, poverty and crime rates are high. Drugs and women’s bodies are sold and their lives are in peril. Despite the danger, every Thursday night Sandra would go to a liquor store parking lot and open her trunk. Women walking those streets soon came to know that Lisieux would be there with sanitary supplies, soap, toothpaste, clothes, food. The van was there rain or shine. Women were met with respect and love. Trust was established and word spread.
The pandemic made it impossible to gather in the parking lot, so Lisieux went on the road, traveling Mitchell Heights earlier in the day one afternoon per week. Recognizing the van, individually women would come for care bags and conversation, sometimes risking the anger of the men who profit off of them. Lisieux continues that Thursday drive.
Even before the pandemic, Sandra envisioned a drop-in center, a place to take a shower, wash clothes, and get help connecting with community resources such as counseling and rehab. That center opened on Valentine’s Day, 2021, with a cozy living room and beautiful, vibrant art on the wall, as suggested by Onie, to bring beauty into difficult lives.
Every Tuesday, clients are welcomed with love and asked what they would like that day.
Often, it’s a home cooked meal followed by a shower and possibly a nap in the living room. The Center serves as a home address and phone number which is essential for many services, including social security benefits and medical appointments. Once a month clients can choose a pair of shoes, a coat, a warm blanket. These things that we take for granted are regularly stolen. It’s part of street life.
Sandra always allows clients to choose. If you go to counseling and drop out, she doesn’t reprimand. If you go to rehab and drop out multiple times, she doesn’t judge. She helps whenever a woman is ready. Because she always remembers that she could have easily been that woman walking the streets.
The Lisieux website says: Our goal is to love each of the women we serve right where they are today, and then love them again tomorrow and again the next day.
Heroically, Sandra Ferrell never judges, and Sandra Ferrell never gives up. And Sandra Ferrell always loves.
Sandra Ferrell is the 2020 Woman of Achievement for Heroism.