Story by Samantha Avalos/ Contributing writer
Dorris Walker-Taylor radiates a warm and inviting energy. Settling into a cushioned conference room chair, her hair in tight curly tendrils the color of ebony, frame her warm face. She wears a bright mustard-colored blouse featuring embroidered lace. The scent of lavender hangs in the air.
Walker-Taylor, 63, is a picture of hard work and focus, a presentation of a woman who seems to have her life together.
But she will be the first to say this is a new chapter in her life, replacing one that engulfed her with years of guilt and self-doubt that kept her in a 26-year cycle of addiction and prostitution on the streets of Nashville.
She credits Thistle Farms, a nonprofit whose message of Love Heals she thanks for showing her the way off the streets. The nonprofit, started more than two decades ago by Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest, Thistle Farms gives women who are victims of trafficking, drug abuse and prostitution a second chance.
Instead of being a statistic among women trapped in a life on the street, Walker-Taylor is the events director at Thistle Farms.
She received her second chance 10 years ago after entering a rehabilitation program, The Magdalene House, which Stevens began in 1997 as a safe house for women seeking a way off the streets. Magadalene offers free housing as well as work skills so that participants can re-enter society.
Walker-Taylor grew up in White House, 25 miles north of Nashville, with her parents and brother.
“My mother and father were believers in God. There were no drugs in the house.”
But troubles still came knocking. When she was 12, a troubled family member entered their home, hurting her mother and fatally shooting her father. Walker-Taylor witnessed the violence.
“I remember screaming and running over to my dad and just as I got there, he fell, which resulted in my partially being trapped underneath my dying father,” she recalled.
Walker-Taylor suppressed this terrible memory by turning to marijuana and later, cocaine, all by the age of 13. During the remainder of her teenage years, she fell into a constant use of drugs. Within a few years she was attracted to Nashville, where her need for the next fix led her to a cruel life on the streets.
“That’s where I began to live a truly inhumane life,” she said.
In the streets, Walker-Taylor said she would sell herself as she was “some types of commodity” and exchange herself for money, drugs and even to get out of harsh weather.
She was raised believing in God and the power of prayer but because she was often under the influence, Walker-Taylor says she found it difficult to recite anything she was taught, except for one Psalm.
“I would walk the streets of Nashville and I would recite Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He make me to lie down in green pastures. At the end of the psalm it says, And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
“I was dwelling, but I knew if God would come and get me, I’d be okay. So, I would cry out and ask God to get me.”
Walker-Taylor said she was always in and out of jail for prostitution and possession of drug paraphernalia. During one incarceration, she saw an old friend, Regina, who she had met on the streets. Walker-Taylor said she hadn’t seen her friend in a while and believed she had died. The streets, after all, were a dangerous place.
“Our lives didn’t hold any value in the streets,” she said.
But Regina wasn’t an inmate.
“She was there as someone bringing the word of hope.”
Regina approached her, glowing. The friend said she had gotten her life back and began talking to her about The Magdalene House.
Having failed several previous times at trying to become drug free, Walker-Taylor-Walker-Taylor was hesitant to try anything else.
“I’d probably gone into six or seven halfway houses, but what was that going to do for me when I’ve been addicted the vast majority of my life?”
Walker-Taylor said the halfway houses charged $140 a week. She was unemployed and probably unemployable, so she’d soon be back on the street, the only occupation she knew.
“I would try and sleep with somebody to get my money, and then I’d feel so bad about myself because I was clean, I’d go back and use again. So, it was a very vicious cycle,” she noted.
Walker-Taylor said Regina insisted the Magdalene program was different because it was longterm and designed for women like them. The Magdalene Program is a no-cost two-year program that houses women and helps them recover from sexual and drug abuse.
Walker-Taylor took down the phone number from Regina, but felt nervous having it in her possession.
“At that time, everything I touched turned into dirt. I knew when she gave me the paper with this number, it wouldn’t be long before I threw it away like everything else,” she said.
With the number for the program in hand, Walker-Taylor got out of jail and decided to visit her mother and two children in White House. Not trusting herself, she decided to leave the phone number for the Magdalene program in the one place she knew she could trust.
“I walked to my daughter’s room and took a photo that was hung on the wall and scribbled the number on the back of the picture and hung it back up. Now that number was safe and I knew exactly where to find it.”
Walker-Taylor stayed a few days but left soon after because she says she didn’t know how to live any other way. A brother pleaded with her to call their mom from time to time because every time their mom would hear on the news about a dead woman, she would think it was her.
Something changed. She says once she got back to the streets and crack houses, an inner voice would tell her to call her mom.
“Have you called your mom today?” Walker-Taylor said of this voice. “I just kept being reminded of what my brother said.”
She avoided calling for many months, but eventually the power of the voice overwhelmed her.
“I thank God every day of my life that I finally listened to the voice inside my head because I finally called my mom.”
Walker-Taylor told her mom she was doing alright, although she was lying. Her mother asked her for a favor: to sing for the 25th choir anniversary at their church. She reluctantly agreed, returning to White House a year and a half after her last visit.
“This time when I got home, I was so tired and I was broken and I had blisters on my feet where I would walk in high heels until my feet were so tired and I’d take them off and walk on the hot pavement,” Walker-Taylor remembered.
“I was exhausted and had just about lost my will to live.”
Being back at home felt good. After a good night’s sleep, she remembered where she had hidden the with the telephone number for Magdalene House. It was on her mind.
She dialed Regina and asked for help getting into the program. “I’m tired, I can’t keep doing this,” Walker-Taylor told her friend.
At that time, the program had a waitlist of 150. However, she said Regina promised her she’d get her in if she called her every day.
Walker-Taylor began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. “The first time I had any hope in my life in the past few decades.”
In the meantime, she set her sights on completing the favor her mom asked of her.
“I would go to choir practice every night and would wake up to my mom cooking breakfast and praying, singing, O-o-o-h Lord, I want you to help me.” She sang the words as she remembered her mother singing them.
For the choir anniversary, Walker-Taylor was given the leading song which was Lemmie Battles’ “You’re Looking at a Miracle.” The lyrics of the gospel song goes, “Every time you look at me, you’re looking at a miracle.”
“I didn’t look like a miracle; I didn’t feel like a miracle,” recalled Walker-Taylor.
After her performance, she felt a sense of relief that she had done what her mom asked of her and she was now looking to go back to the streets.
“I’ve rested up, my mom’s been feeding me, I’m feeling better and every night, I’m having using dreams. These dreams are had with people of addiction who recovering or not, dream of using drugs.”
The next morning, she began to pack up to head back to the streets when she heard her mother’s booming voice thundering through the house.
“She was praying harder than I’ve ever heard any human being pray in their lives,” Walker-Taylor said.
“You could almost feel the vibrations of the windows. She would go “O-o-o-h Lord I want you to help me,” she sang again, her soulful voice echoing the room.
At the time, her plan was to use cash her mother had given her for food to pay for a ride back to Nashville. She didn’t doubt someone would come to take her back to Nashville.
But this time was different.
“No one would answer the phone. One guy had a flat tire and the next said he didn’t have the gas to pick me up,” recalled Walker-Taylor. She left messages promising gas money and doing drugs together.
Her mom stopped her and asked what she was doing, tears welling up in her eyes. The daughter explained to her that she felt out of place. As she was about to take her belongings and leave the phone rang.
“I answered and it wasn’t anybody coming to take me back to the streets. It was Regina,” Walker-Taylor recalled, her voice growing soft, her eyes filling with tears,
“She brought me into the program on Nov. 9, 2009 and I’ve been clean ever since,” she smiled through tears.
Being trusted with things many of us take for granted meant the world to Walker-Taylor as she entered the program and a key to her new home. “No one had trusted me enough in two whole decades enough to give me a key,” she recalled.
The program asked her to ponder one question: What happened to you?
That’s when she knew this program was different.
“It takes a village to raise a child. Women don’t go out there (to the streets) by themselves. So, it takes a community to put them back together,” says Walker-Taylor. She was advised by another woman in the program to “make sure you stick and stay.” This advice, she said, “dug into my spirit.”
Today, Walker-Taylor says she happily travels the world with Stevens and tells her story asking people to “consider the thistle.”
“This organization loved me back to life. I’m proud of what God’s done to my life. I love my life now, I love it.” smiles Walker-Taylor.
On November 9, Walker-Taylor-Taylor celebrated 10 years of sobriety.
“Thistles are survival weeds. They’re weeds with briars and a purple center. When women come in, they’re prickly and streetwise around the edges and they don’t want anyone to be around them. By the time she goes through the program, she changes,” said Walker-Taylor.
She’s a weed transformed into a rose.
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