My Sister’s House, a new project by New Bern nonprofit Tried By Fire, will serve as a temporary home and training center for women recently released from incarceration.

NEW BERN, N.C. (AP) — The sign just above the front door of the new two-story house under construction in New Bern bears a simple message:

“My Sister’s House — Where your past doesn’t matter.”

The pledge is meant as a welcoming for the women that will one day live there, a reminder that, whatever their former trespasses, they have finally found a place to start anew.

It’s a pledge that, despite unforeseen delays, local nonprofit Tried By Fire, Inc. is close to fulfilling.

Once completed, My Sister’s House will provide temporary shelter, from 90-120 days, for up to eight women at one time in a monitored environment after their release from prison. Tried by Fire staff will work with the tenants to help them find employment and educational opportunities with the goal of rebuilding their lives and finding permanent, affordable housing.

During a recent tour of My Sister’s House, Deedra Durocher, Tried By Fire’s volunteer and resource coordinator, said that in addition to offering a “safe, supportive and non-judgemental environment,” one of the most important services My Sister’s House can provide is simply giving the women it will serve a legitimate address.

“The biggest impact that this house is going to have is that when someone comes out of prison the first thing they need is a photo ID,” she said. “If they do not have a viable address they can’t get that, which means they can’t get a job, they can’t get a driver’s license, and they can’t apply for some of the benefits.”

While the house will be rent free, she said once tenants find jobs they will be required to set aside a portion of their incomes for when they eventually move out of My Sister’s House.

“That will allow them to pay a first month’s rent and utility deposit when they’re out on their own,” Durocher said. “But it didn’t seem right for us to take money from someone who’s starting from scratch.”

Durocher said Tried By Fire had initially intended to renovate the abandoned, 80-yr.-old home that formerly stood on the site after it was donated to the group by Habitat for Humanity in 2019. When renovation work began, however, they discovered that the interior of the home had sustained substantial water and termite damage and the foundation would need to be replaced.

Fearing the structure wouldn’t survive being lifted for the repair work, Tried By Fire’s board of directors made the decision to have it demolished in Sept. 2021 and begin work on a new home on the same property.

“As it turned out, that was a real fortunate blessing because now we have a house that’s all new, that’s all sturdy and that is much more energy efficient and meets all the building codes,” Durocher said. “And we’ve been able to restructure a little bit of the interior beyond what was originally here to be more appropriate for a group home.”

Although construction of My Sister’s House was initially set to be completed by last Thanksgiving, a combination of flu and COVID illnesses among volunteers and contractors delayed the work.

While she declined to give a definite opening date, Durocher said she now believed it would be the end of February or early March before a certificate of occupancy could be obtained.

“Once we have that we can start moving the furniture in and start putting in things like sheets and towels and kitchenware. Then we have to get our staffing in place” she said.

Durocher said she is hopeful My Sister’s House can welcome its first residents by April.

“We’re not going to be pushed into artificial deadlines,” she stressed. “We have come too far and have had too many people invest in us to not be ready to do it right when we get started.”

‘First you have to have some damn boots’

Durocher said the total project will cost approximately $347,000 for the 2,760 square-foot home. Through the generosity of in-kind donations from local businesses of appliances, cabinets and other essentials, she said Tried By Fire’s out of pocket expenses will be in the range of $275,000, which has already been raised through grants and financial donations.

The new house follows in the same footprint as the original, but includes a larger kitchen and dining room.

The downstairs will feature a conference/computer room and library for training programs and filling out job applications as well as a laundry room and ADA compliant bathrooms.

A common area living room with a couch and chairs will include a table fashioned from lumber salvaged from the original house.

The ground floor will also feature an office with sleeping quarters for overnight staff.

“We believe at this point that it will be important for us to have 24-7 supervision. Not to repeat a prison kind of environment but to be supportive, ensure everyone’s safety and to offer whatever assistance that doesn’t always come on a timeclock,” Durocher explained.

The residents’ living quarters upstairs will consist of four bedrooms, each of which will sleep two women.

Durocher said workers will put up a privacy fence, picnic tables and swing set in the home’s side yard for women who want to spend time outdoors with their children.

Durocher explained that before being approved for My Sister’s House, the women will be interviewed by a member of Tried By Fire’s advisory council three months prior to their release.

“The criteria is going to be her commitment for really taking responsibility for her own transition,” she said. “The criteria will be one of ‘What’s your commitment to yourself?’ ”

Once they are placed in My Sister’s House, the residents will be under the supervision of the house manager and staff.

“They will be surrounded with a tremendous amount of support that is going to come from volunteers who have signed up for our counseling or tutoring services,” Durocher said. “That will include people who want to do cooking or sewing classes or bring food or just visit.”

Finding employment for the women will be a top priority, Durocher said.

“That is going to be critical. We’ve had a number of employers who have said when they’re ready let us know and we’ll be happy to interview them,” she noted.

Staff will also work with the residents to find permanent housing opportunities with the support of local programs such as Reviving Life Ministries, social workers and therapists.

Less visible goals, like helping rebuild self confidence, will also be emphasized.

“Living together where they’re going to share household chores and meal planning means they’re going to have to learn teamwork and be aware of leadership,” Durocher said. “They’ll have to sit through some budgeting and financial literacy classes.”

Perhaps the biggest test each woman will face is learning how to trust both themselves and their new roommates and staff.

“I’m hoping we will have people who move on from My Sister’s House that will come back and offer peer counseling and mentoring with the whole ‘I’ve been there and done that’ experience that they can share,” Durocher said.

Many women, noted Durocher, are incarcerated for crimes related directly to poverty, such as drug offenses, embezzlement, stealing, and prostitution.

“These are things that are done to support their family,” she commented. “There’s got to be a better way to deal with justice-involved individuals, particularly mothers. Because breaking that family bond, what does the community expect”

“It’s that old thing people say about ‘They can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps,’ ” Durocher added. “Well, first you have to have some damn boots.”

A dream decades in the making

For Bonita Simmons, Tried By Fire’s executive director, My Sister’s House is the culmination of a vision that began when she was a young girl performing with the gospel trio Tried By Fire in her hometown of Kinston, where her father worked as a minister.

When the group disbanded in 2000, she carried on as a solo artist under the same name, performing at prisons across the state on holidays. Simmons would also share her experiences as a young wife who had dealt with domestic violence.

“I would do my concert and I would feel good about myself when I left and then I would get letters and they would tell me how when they get out of prison they have nowhere to go,” Simmons recalled. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Simmons said she began working with her father to find rental property that could serve the women she had met and also offered to pay their rent and other costs. Over two years she managed to assist 10 women, she said, before realizing she needed a larger platform to raise money for her cause.

In 2013 Tried By Fire filed for 501c3 nonprofit status and received approval the following year.

Despite the delays in completing My Sister’s House, Simmons said she was grateful for the support the project has received from both city officials and the community at large.

“Some days I ride by and I really cry,” she said. “The only thing I could do was keep my eye on the goal and believe that it was going to happen. We’re turning something that was a blighted property into a place to call home.”

(1) comment

David Collins

Doubt that allowing a 90 - 120 day residency would qualify for ID card , drivers license, voter registration , public assistance registration , school registration , or possible employment applications . All would have to be changed after exiting the facility . Would the temp residents do that remains to be seen . Good luck collecting any rent as well .

Welcome to the discussion.

As a privately owned web site, we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that contain spam, advertising, vulgarity, threats of violence, racism, anti-Semitism, or personal/abusive/condescending attacks on other users or goading them. The same applies to trolling, the use of multiple aliases, or just generally being a jerk. Enforcement of this policy is at the sole discretion of the site administrators and repeat offenders may be blocked or permanently banned without warning.