By Holly Desrosier
Craven Community College (Craven CC) is one of several institutions working with local nonprofit Tried By Fire, Inc. on an initiative called “My Sister’s House.” This venture blossomed from the group’s commitment to assist women newly released from prison who need a safe home while transitioning back into society.
My Sister’s House will be a permanent home and rehabilitation center for formerly incarcerated women of all ages, races and backgrounds. An imperative part of reintegration includes having an address so individuals can qualify for a number of resources. In the beginning, up to six women will stay in the house between 90 and 120 days, depending on their needs. All candidates will be assessed prior to their release to find out what their needs are, whether it’s education or substance abuse counseling, so they can gain a sense of purpose, develop a plan to move forward and be successful.
The vision for this project has long been a passion of Bonita Simmons, executive director of Tried By Fire and show choir coordinator at Craven CC. It started as an idea fueled by her life of outreach ministry and slowly evolved over the years into the tangible efforts she leads today. She founded Tried By Fire in 2013 and was generously donated an abandoned house at 524 Roundtree Street in downtown New Bern in December 2018. After garnering support from area businesses, Tried By Fire began major renovations on the structure the following year.
One fundamental business partner has been the Craven-Pamlico Re-Entry Council (CPRC), which assists with all aspects of re-entry from leaving the prison system to thriving in all areas of life. CPRC has been instrumental in ensuring that My Sister’s House is eligible to receive local, state and federal funding.
Another close collaboration is with Craven CC. CPRC and Craven CC recently made their years long partnership official, and their cooperative events that provide career advice and soft skills training are expected to be immensely beneficial for the women who will reside at My Sister’s House. The college and Re-Entry Council will offer the Job Readiness Boot Camp, meals from Religious Community Services, counseling and job placement services, job training and scholarship opportunities. Public transportation is readily available for residents who need it.
“We’re going to encourage them to go to Craven Community College to take advantage of all the resources to help them with their re-entry,” said Simmons. “On top of that, we have a CARTS stop right next to the house, so then they can get on CARTS and go to Craven Community College, where the Re-Entry Council will be housed. They will help facilitate and walk them through what they’ll need.”
The women will also have access to community partners such as Celebrate Recovery to guide them through other possible challenges after their release. Most recently, My Sister’s House has partnered with local manufacturer Dradura, who have agreed to train and hire women who qualify.
While most of these services have been offered at no cost, Simmons said the community has done an amazing job of contributing to the project financially and through volunteer efforts. Since repairs began last year, she has welcomed hundreds of individuals and groups to do volunteer work, including AmeriCorps, former classmates, church groups, high school students, community leaders and surrounding Craven Terrace and other local residents.
“We’ve had Republicans, we’ve had Democrats, we’ve had people who have no party, we’ve had people who live in Trent Woods and people who live in Trent Court to help,” said Simmons. “It’s been diverse to show that it’s a humanity thing, and kindness doesn’t have a color or creed or religion.”
The nonprofit launched a unique fundraiser called “One Thousand One Hundreds” on Feb. 1. The goal was to raise $100,000 by April 30, which was the last day of National Re-Entry Week. Over 50% of the goal was met. That same week, My Sister’s House was awarded a $50,000 charitable grant from the Anonymous Trust of Raleigh, a private foundation that serves rural and underserved communities in Eastern North Carolina. Such funding is integral to the nonprofit’s longevity and will be used for renovations.
Simmons has been amazed by monetary contributions the organization has received, including anonymous donations of up to $14,000. With continued support from the community, she is hopeful that My Sister’s House will be operational by this Thanksgiving. She noted that she’s been overwhelmed with gratitude seeing the community coming together and knowing that the house’s potential residents will be supported in every step of their journey.
“We believe that the community has already shown us that they have our back,” she said. “Every day I wake up with more purpose. I’m thankful when I go to the mailbox and there’s another donation check. There are days when I literally have tears in my eyes because I am so thankful that I continued to pursue this.”
Anyone who would like to support the “One Thousand One Hundred” fundraiser can visit www.triedbyfireinc.org, and those interested in volunteering can call or text 252-670-1907. To connect with job readiness services offered through Craven CC and CPRC, call 252-497-2009 or 252-631-9525.