A Christian social enterprise offers healing to survivors of violence and abuse
Alexandria Andrews and the Rev. Dr. Argrow “Kit” Evans-Ford examine freshly cut bars of soap. The natural soaps are one of the bath and body products made at Argrow's House and sold to support the ministry. Photos by Greg Boll/Greg Boll Photography
Inspired by her own experience and that of her grandmother, the Rev. Dr. Argrow “Kit” Evans-Ford has established a safe space for women and a bath products business to help support it.
The Rev. Argrow “Kit” Evans-Ford knows the battered and bruised women who come to her social enterprise, Argrow’s House of Healing and Hope, very well.
Nestled in a quiet Davenport, Iowa, neighborhood near the Mississippi River, the small white house provides a safe space for women who have suffered violence and abuse. Women like herself.
Evans-Ford was a Peace Corps volunteer when she was attacked on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Cleaning her apartment one evening, she heard the door creak. She was not alarmed; the wind sometimes pushed it open. But as she turned to go and close it, she realized that someone had come in. He had a knife.
The young woman tried repeatedly to escape as her assailant cut her, slammed her to the floor, choked, dragged and attempted to rape her. Her screams eventually drew neighbors, who stopped the attack.
Evans-Ford was physically rescued, but it would be years before she was mentally or spiritually healed. Post-traumatic stress disorder -- common among survivors -- affected her profoundly. In time, and thanks to professional help, she regained her strength and confidence.
When she did, she knew she wanted to help other women with similar experiences.
Argrow’s House is the result of Evans-Ford’s dream of providing a sanctuary to women in need of healing. The Christian ministry, founded in December 2017, employs four survivors, who create and sell bath and body products in a social enterprise.
It also provides free services, from counseling and spiritual direction to yoga and massage, to about 100 women who are struggling with wounds that are much more than skin-deep.
“One in four women are survivors of sexual assault,” Evans-Ford said. “Many women suffer domestic violence as well. I’m moving forward with my call. It’s a blessing that I’m able to do that.”
‘Handmade by women healing from violence’
On the outside, Argrow’s House has a picket fence, a tidy lawn and flowers. Inside, the scent of lavender fills the air. Walk through the largely empty living and dining rooms -- left open for yoga and Zumba classes, but easily filled with folding chairs for support groups -- and you pass a large purple sign. It reads: “Natural bath and body products handmade by women healing from violence and abuse.”
The quote is printed next to a drawing of the original Argrow, Evans-Ford’s grandmother, for whom the house is named. She was a survivor of violence and abuse, yet she modeled resilience and joy throughout her life, Evans-Ford said.
The kitchen is as busy and cluttered as the rest of the house is calm and spare. Two women are packaging lavender bath balms for a 200-piece order. The deadline is this morning, and they’ve only just begun, but they talk and laugh as if they have all day.
After the things they’ve survived, a tight deadline is a piece of cake.
A model to replicate
After her own attack, Evans-Ford looked to her grandmother’s experience and saw an intersection of their lives and purpose. Like her grandmother, who became a deacon, she would find her path through the church.
Evans-Ford earned an M.Div. and a doctor of ministry degree in spiritual direction from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, finishing in 2012. While she was a student, she volunteered overseas again, this time in South Africa, where she helped women heal from rape.
She also volunteered in Nashville, Tennessee, for an organization called Thistle Farms. Dedicated to helping survivors by providing a home atmosphere with free services from therapy to job training, Thistle Farms also employs survivors in a soap-making business.
The Thistle Farms model seemed to be a good fit for the holistic social enterprise Evans-Ford was beginning to imagine.
The next few years were taken up with life itself -- meeting and marrying her husband, the Rev. Dwight Ford, and moving to the Quad Cities, Iowa/Illinois, area. Evans-Ford began a busy and multifaceted career as a visiting professor of theology at St. Ambrose University, a writer and blogger, inspirational speaker, dancer, spiritual director, minister and model. And she became the mother of two children.
She had developed a five-year plan for her social justice enterprise during seminary, and she was now ready to put the pieces in place.
Having worked in community development in the Peace Corps, Evans-Ford knew what to do. She began to develop relationships with people in the community. She started serving as a minister in her husband’s church. She also connected with survivors through a webinar series she created called “Overcoming the S.T.O.R.M.,” designed to help women of color heal from violence and abuse.
Do you have a five-year plan for your ministry? Does your personal plan differ from that of your organization?
Evans-Ford “jumped on it,” she said, traveling to Atlanta to enter the first cohort of Do Good X’s startup accelerator program in 2017. There she found information, inspiration and a community of peers with whom she could continue to work out her idea.
Do Good X
FTE President and Do Good X creator Stephen Lewis said that Evans-Ford’s approach in founding Argrow’s House addresses some of the obstacles that can undermine an enterprise.
First, he said, it’s important to know that there is a demand for what you are offering.
Have you researched the need for the services your organization offers? If so, in what ways did that research shape or inform your plans?
“Nine out of 10 entrepreneurial endeavors fail,” he said. “Don’t come up with a solution [first] and then try to find the problem. Ask, ‘What solutions might we create to solve the problems?’ Ask if they will use the solution you are creating. Determine if there is a demand for your solution.”
Evans-Ford was sure of the demand. Being a survivor herself gave her insight she could not have had otherwise. Her work in Africa and Nashville added to her understanding. With nearly 1 in 3 women in the U.S. a survivor of domestic abuse and almost 1 in 5 a survivor of rape, the need for services was clear.
Another key task is to acquire financial and human resources, Lewis said. “You must be able to tell the story of ‘why?’ Why are you doing this? Why will it help? You must have a good origin story. People are compelled by your ‘why.’ Get good at telling it, and selling your story. Invite people to join you in the cause.”
Evans-Ford had learned to share her own personal and haunting story, difficult as it was. Sharing it publicly had become part of her own healing journey. It got easier as time went on, she said.
What is your story? Your organization’s? Have you honed the telling of your story so that you can “invite people to join you in the cause?”
“The fear [of assault] doesn’t haunt me the way it used to,” she said. Counseling helped her work through the continuing aftereffects of the assault, and a speech coach helped her work on her delivery.
“I hated having to tell it over and over again,” she said. “But I learned to share from the heart, and show that you can get on the other side of joy.”
As for the enterprise part of the equation, Evans-Ford had decided on beautiful, colorful bath products that would bring joy in both the making and the using.
Do Good X provided critical support there, too, by connecting her with soap-making mentors who assisted with product development, packaging, marketing, shipping and distribution.
When she left Atlanta, Evans-Ford was ready to launch Argrow’s House.
Partners in the cause
Evans-Ford’s earliest partnerships included Grace City Church, where her husband pastors. Thanks to Grace, Argrow’s House acquired the property and a mortgage.
“They used one of their properties as collateral for us to purchase Argrow’s House without having to put down a large down payment,” she said.
Other financial partnerships -- including a $10,000 investment from the General Board of Global Ministries, the global mission of the United Methodist Church -- often came by way of those who had heard Evans-Ford speak or come across her mission online.
“I worked to develop relationships and networked every day with people in the Quad Cities and around the country,” Evans-Ford said. “I reached out to people I know who have certain skill sets. I asked if they would donate their time.”
What kinds of partnerships do you need to get your new ministry started? What is the best way to cultivate the partners you need?
The result is a full calendar of free services at Argrow’s House. Certified domestic abuse counselors and licensed clinical social workers provide therapy and lead group discussions. Yoga and Zumba teachers lead exercise classes. Others lead sewing and cooking classes, spiritual direction and massage therapy.
“Research shows the most effective strategies for helping women heal from violence and abuse are different for everyone,” Evans-Ford said. “You need to offer a variety of experiences.”
Now ready to develop the products Argrow’s House would sell, Evans-Ford needed a new kind of help. She called on Tosha Greer, a friend from church known for her whipped shea body butter and sugar scrubs. Greer began consulting for the product development department of the nascent social enterprise, attending essential-oil blending classes with Evans-Ford and spending untold hours experimenting in the kitchen of the house, which also serves as the manufacturing plant.
Together, they developed “beautiful, colorful products that reflect joy.”
When Evans-Ford was ready to hire someone to help get the word out, she knew whom to ask. Alexandria Andrews had earned her bachelor’s degree in communications just months before entering a relationship that nearly destroyed her life. Now, the 28-year-old woman had left her abuser and was trying to find her way forward. This was exactly the person for whom Argrow’s House was intended.
“The thing about my story is it shows it can happen to so-called normal people,” Andrews said. “He was my high school crush. We came back together after college. He swept me off my feet and promised me a fairy-tale life.”
For Andrews, who would become Evans-Ford’s first survivor-employee, the promised life ended at the altar. Once married, the verbal abuse began and eventually became physical. Evans-Ford noticed that every time Andrews came to church, she had a new facial injury.
“Everyone else believed my story [of bumping into a door or falling], but not Dr. Kit,” Andrews said. “She spoke up. She wanted to make sure I knew that when I was ready to get out of the relationship, she’d be there for me.”
Financial, social and emotional empowerment
Getting a job after suffering abuse restores more than financial stability, as important as that is. It also helps restore victims’ confidence and self-respect, Andrews said, especially if they have been robbed of financial independence by their abusers, a condition she understands firsthand.
“This is my very first job that I’m proud to put on my résumé,” Andrews said. “I wake up every day with a purpose and a plan. I’m so energized.”
Andrews is energized, too, by the community she has found at Argrow’s House, which may be the most valuable gift of all. Whether in a yoga class or a group discussion session, survivors share fellowship and stories that encourage healing, together.
What kind of community do you want to create?
They encourage each other to speak up and speak out, Andrews said. That has helped strengthen her interactions with others both in and outside the survivor community. It’s helped her -- and her fellow survivors -- grow the “big voice” needed for becoming whole.
“We empower each other,” Andrews said. “My ex used to make me feel like what I went through wasn’t a big deal, was normal. Argrow’s House says, ‘No, that’s not normal.’”
Argrow’s House is off to a solid start, FTE’s Lewis said. “Kit’s done so much in six months.”
Evans-Ford said Argrow’s House has served about 100 women so far, with about 30 coming for free services weekly.
The enterprise has new partnerships with five women’s shelters that refer clients to Argrow’s House for services -- which will always be offered at no charge, Evans-Ford said.
“Treatment is expensive,” she said. “I was employed by the U.S. government at the time of my attack, so my PTSD treatment was covered. Not everyone can afford it.”
More services and assistance will be implemented soon. The basement will become a clothing shop for women and children who leave with nothing but what’s on their backs. A first-floor room will become a food pantry. Both second-floor bedrooms will become home to two survivors.
Down the road, Evans-Ford would like to buy the brick building next door and turn it into a self-sustaining soap-making factory, run solely by survivor-employees. She’d like to see about getting their bath products into a store like Whole Foods. She’d also like to buy another property to support more transitional housing.
This summer calls for another product launch, and next fall for a gala to pay off the mortgage. Donor appreciation dinners dot the calendar. In the meantime, Evans-Ford continues her own healing journey.
Together, she and the women of Argrow’s House will get “on the other side of joy.”