Portrait of a Dangerous Woman – Mary Frances Bowley
Mary Frances Bowley peers through the partly drawn blinds of a room that overlooks a wide, open field. Outside, two young women, who are adults by law but look like teenagers, meet each other’s gaze and break out into childish, hysterical giggles. They embrace each other tightly and head to a swing set a few yards away. Each takes a seat, one beside the other, and back and forth they rock, sharing secrets, the depths of which only they know.
Mary Frances watches this exchange, her fingers prying open the blinds wide enough to glimpse the scene, one she’s witnessed dozens of times before. Even so, she smiles and her eyes well with water, overjoyed at what appears to be a breakthrough. “Will you look at that?” she asks, her voice catching.
What looks to an outsider like a simple interaction between friends is to Mary Frances a miracle: a young woman, snatched from the depths of torture—abused, sexually trafficked, drug addicted, and hunted by her abusers—taking a risk to open up, share her traumas, and eventually, to learn to laugh again. “When she first came to us, she would sit on the floor in a ball and rock back and forth,” Mary Frances recalls. “Look at her now.”
A Force to be Reckoned With
Mary Frances Bowley talks fast and moves even faster. Maybe that’s what happens when your life has been as full of twists and turns as hers has: you learn to keep up and, if you’re able, get a step ahead. As director of Wellspring Living, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse confront and overcome their traumas through advocacy, education, and treatment, Bowley is always on the go. A typical day might include anything from working with federal law enforcement officials to rescue young women and prosecute adult perpetrators, to speaking at an event to raise awareness about the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), to lobbying legislators for tougher penalties against child predators. In fact, she was a vocal supporter of HB 200, Georgia’s anti-sex trafficking law, which was signed earlier this year.
Mary Frances Bowley is, to quote the title of her 2007 book about Wellspring Living, a “dangerous woman”—one whose passion for justice and determination to help restore CSEC victims and their families to spiritual, physical, and emotional wholeness, makes her a virtual force to be reckoned with.
Consider the facts: since its inception in 2001, more than 100 young girls and women have enrolled in Wellspring Living’s programs, and a whopping eighty-four percent of the participants have graduated; compare that to a nine percent graduation rate for comparable government programs. The group has engaged more than 125 churches on the issue of CSEC.
Wellspring Living has also garnered national attention: Mary Frances and her team have worked with more than 20 organizations here and abroad to establish their own rehabilitation programs for sex trafficking victims. In 2008, then-Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue appointed her to the State Commission on Family Violence. And last year, a team from the United Nations visited Mary Frances to observe best practices for the treatment of sexual abuse and human trafficking.
But what’s nearly as remarkable as Wellspring’s success is the story of how the organization came to be.
“I’m Supposed to Do What?”
Mary Frances Bowley was born and raised in Geneva, Alabama, the only girl in a house of boys. “I never did girl things,” she quips. A “good, church girl,” Mary Frances had modest aspirations, namely to be a wife, mother and teacher who would work hard and one day retire.
She married her high school sweetheart, raised two sons, and became a kindergarten teacher. But no way could she have known then that a quiet retirement wasn’t part of the plan.
A devout Christian and teacher at heart, Bowley had been director of women’s ministries at First Baptist Church of Peachtree City for ten years, when she felt the desire to do more. She shared that desire with about forty women in the congregation, and before long, the group began organizing conferences to bring together women from various churches and different denominations in Peachtree City for fellowship and spiritual outreach to the community. The conferences were held over a period of three years, each time with record attendance and participation.
She shared her concerns with about forty women in the congregation, and before long, the group began organizing interdenominational conferences for women from various churches in Peachtree City. The conferences were held over a period of three years, each time with record attendance and participation.
Then, in 1999, Mary Frances got a call that would change her life. Ann Graham Lotz, daughter of Reverend Billy Graham, wanted to hold a women’s conference at Phillips Arena in Atlanta, and she wanted Mary Frances to organize it. That was a tall order for a kindergarten teacher from Alabama with modest dreams. Yet Mary Frances stepped up to the challenge. The event was a success, attracting more than 20,000 women. It was the largest cross-cultural, inter-denominational, international gathering of women Atlanta had ever seen. But still, Mary Frances felt she needed to do more. “I thought, ‘This is great. But is that all?’”
Helen Heard, a friend and member emeritus of the Wellspring board of directors, remembers the event well. “There were hundreds of volunteers. The women who had been part of the prayer team felt they worked so well together,” she said. “The idea came to try to pull people together cross culturally to meet the needs of women in Fayette County and Metro Atlanta.” And there, among that core group of 40 women, Wellspring Living was created. The group took its name from the Biblical story about the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well.
The women reached out to other ministries and missions inside the city of Atlanta.
Before long, they began working with women whose lives were in shambles. Some were drug addicted, some had eating disorders. Still others wrestled with self-mutilation. Nearly all had been ostracized by their families. Soon, Mary Frances and the other volunteers discovered that although their symptoms were different, most of the women had one thing in common: they had been sexually abused as children. It was something Mary Frances would later learn happens with startling frequency. “One in four girls has been sexually abused by age 18,” Mary Frances says. “She either goes toward perfection or destruction. Addiction, cutting, and eating disorders are symptoms of the problem, or ‘presenting issues.’ We needed a program to treat the core issue, not the presenting issue.”
But before they could do that, Mary Frances and her team decided the women needed to have a place to come and start their lives over. “We were in business without being in business,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I’ve got no social work, no psychology background. I have nothing in common with these women, and I’m supposed to be leading this?’”
So she went back to her church and asked for help in finding temporary homes for the women. Teri Crabtree, a friend and Wellspring advocate, remembers the day Mary Frances spoke in Sunday school about the need to find homes for the young women. “She said, ‘The Bible talks about going to Jerusalem or the ends of the earth to help those in need, but there are people here who won’t open their homes.’ That’s when I realized: my Jerusalem is here. Shame on me if I don’t open my doors,” Teri said.
In 2003, Teri opened her home to a young woman who had finished the program. Prior to going to Wellspring, the girl had been addicted to drugs. But Teri remembers her as a “wonderful, neat girl who was growing in her faith.” In fact, the two women still keep in touch, although the woman has moved to another state, gotten married, and taken a management position for a national retail chain. “You see bad things that happen on the news or people who need help and you say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible. Someone will do something about it! A lot of people will say what needs to be done, but Mary Frances does it. For those of us who get to come along and participate in a small way, it’s great,” Teri says.
While this foster family arrangement would work in the interim, Mary Frances and her team knew they’d need a viable long-term solution. But with limited funds and the bureaucracy that accompanied getting approval for such a facility, there didn’t seem to be much hope. “I couldn’t see how in the world I would build a building and get a children’s home license. It was a two to three year process,” Mary Frances says. That issue resolved itself when the pastor of a local church called Mary Frances to say they always had an empty children’s cottage available. Suddenly, she could see how her teaching background came into play. Mary Francis began to envision a homeschool environment with volunteers and a holistic treatment approach that would help to restore the girls’ physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
“We Focus on Strengths”
As Mary Frances guides me through one of the two refurbished children’s cottages on this 500 acre estate, I marvel at the love, devotion, and attention that has gone into making this place a real home for the girls. Everything in the house—from the curved furniture and pastel bedding to the dark, wooden floors, to the elegant, yet durable beadboard walls—was done by volunteers. “We want the girls to walk in and know two things: one, you’re of value and two, you’re going to be safe here. Look at this beadboard. Isn’t it beautiful?” Mary Frances asks, running her finger down the length of the wall. “It’s elegant, but tough. The girls can’t punch through the walls,” she notes.
Even after the girls are rescued from their perpetrators, they carry considerable rage and distrust, a natural offshoot to what is, in many cases, lifelong exploitation. It is not uncommon, Mary Frances says, for girls to try to hurt themselves or attempt to run away. To support the girls through those difficult times, Wellspring Living has a 24/7 residential staff at the cottages to provide support and supervision.
The staff also includes licensed counselors who provide weekly counseling and group therapy classes three times per week. Tracy Bussey, Wellspring’s Clinical Director, came to work for the organization in 2009 after working for a county mental health agency for several years. Here, she oversees different groups, such as art and equine therapy, which are designed to help nurture the girls back to health. She also hosts monthly alumni gatherings so that girls maintain a connection with Wellspring staff and volunteers no matter how long they’ve been out of the program. “We focus on strengths, not deficits,” Tracy says.
And it’s those strengths which will be developed, nurtured, and ultimately, restored under the watchful, loving eyes of Mary Frances and her staff, that will make these young women, once victims, themselves forces to be reckoned with. Paul Bowley, Mary Frances’s son and director of Donor Relations for Wellspring, says that strength is evident from the day the girls arrive at Wellspring. “These are the bravest women I know. They’re essentially saying, ‘I haven’t done my life well enough and I’m going to place my life in someone else’s hands.’
“They have so much more faith than anyone gives them credit for,” he continues. “When a woman is violated, it doesn’t just affect her; it affects everyone around her. When you help her to heal, she changes the entire community.”
His father, Dick Bowley, agrees. He is his wife’s biggest advocate and marvels at how what at first looked impossible is now a ministry with national affiliates working to restore hope to so many women. “I call it a virtuous circle,” Dick says. “The people who become volunteers or workers, they pour in, but these young ladies pour it back. I thought I’d been through some tough times in my life, but to look at these women and see so much courage, they’re my heroes.”
Matt Bowley, Dick and Mary Frances’s oldest son, doesn’t actively work with the organization, but sees the impact his mother’s work has on the community. “Her life had always been for me and Paul. She always gave her spirit to us and now she’s giving it back to them. It’s an awesome thing,” he says.
And the work is far from over. At the time of this writing, Wellspring Living is working to retrofit efficiency apartments which were leased to them by the Atlanta Mission. Plans are also underway to create a cosmetology center so program participants can get a work certificate.
The organization is also planning to open a fourth location for Wellspring Treasures—its upscale resale boutiques—in the Morningside section of Atlanta.
Mary Frances Bowley, the little girl from small town Alabama who had modest dreams of being a teacher and a mother, could not have known all those years ago that her humble longings would have such massive impact. But like any true mother, when asked how she’s able to do all she’s done, she deflects attention from herself and focuses instead on her girls. “I believe they’re the most courageous people on the planet. How do they know we’re going to do what we say we’re gonna do? They have to have courage.”
To learn more about Wellspring Living or to volunteer or donate, visit http://www.wellspringliving.org/.