Ten years ago, Josue Cruz was a different person.
“I’ve had a whole lot of personal growth,” said Cruz, one of the newest members of the Men’s Choir at St. Paul United Methodist Church. “My family can tell
you (that) I’m a whole different person than I was 10 years ago. It’s just been a blessing because 10 years ago, you wouldn’t catch me 10 feet from the front stage of the choir.”
Cruz, 33, says the metamorphosis began when he was incarcerated for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon in 2002, but some of his biggest strides have been made in recent months. Since he was released from prison in August, Cruz has settled in at Eureka House, a five-bed transitional housing facility for male ex-offenders, found a job at a local Subway restaurant and a church home at St. Paul.
“It’s a blessing to me to know that I’m on the right path,” he declared. “That’s more important to me than anything.”
When Eureka House Founder Harold Smith and his wife Diane purchased the modest clapboard home on Emerald Street that would become the Eureka House over a decade ago, they intended to fix it up and sell it, but Smith says God had other plans.
“I was just led to, rather than selling it, turning it into a transitional facility for ex-offenders,” explained the father of three. “…I spent two years renovating it, and when I finished … I only had two inquiries (from buyers). That was unusual, and I felt that God wanted me to do something else with this property.”
Smith already had the experience to run a transitional home. He has spent the last three decades working with inmates and ex-offenders. He got his start leading worship services for inmates in Danbury, Va. in 1981, and went on to help reestablish the prison ministry at Winston-Salem First (formerly First Assembly of God) in 1990. By the time he opened the doors of Eureka House ministry in 2002, it just seemed like a logical next step, said Smith, who retired from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco in 1999.
The early years were lean for Eureka House, which Smith funded primarily out of pocket.
“Two years into the ministry, we were actually financially strapped. We didn’t have money to pay the light bill, the water bill and I was so discouraged about that,” recalled the city native. “I told my wife I was going to dissolve the ministry … (but) God spoke to me and said, ‘You haven’t given Me a chance.’”
The following week, Eureka House received a donation from someone who was unaware of its financial troubles, and things began to look up, Smith said. Another benefactor followed suit, sending unsolicited monthly checks in the amount of $500, and later, $5,000. From that moment on, Smith said he has never doubted that Eureka House, which has the mission of providing a “structured, supportive environment to assist ex-offenders in becoming successful, law abiding citizens,” was meant to be.
“God has always provided for this ministry,” related Smith, who grew up across the street from Eureka House. “We’d get down low, and it seems like He’d always provide. That’s the way it’s gone the whole time.”
The number of residents living at the house varies. Currently, Cruz is the only resident; two others will soon join him.
Eureka Ministry Inc., the parent nonprofit for Eureka House, recently took part in the HUD-funded Homeless Prevention Rapid Rehousing Program, which ultimately placed 40 local homeless ex-offenders in permanent housing. When the three-year HUD grant expired earlier this year, 40 percent of those ex-offenders were still housed, Smith reported.
Eureka House provides a variety of programming for its residents, from financial guidance to a support group hosted by area churches. Residents are held to a strict standard of behavior. They are expected to keep up the house and yard, adhere to a nightly curfew, attend mandatory enrichment programs throughout the community and pay nominal programming fees once they are employed.
Forty-eight year-old Milton Norfleet says the Eureka House made all the difference for him. Three years ago, the New Bern native was at the tail end of a nearly decade-long prison sentence, and he was angry.
“I used to have a bad attitude. I really didn’t care about nothing. I was mad all the time,” related Norfleet, who was incarcerated in 2002 for kidnapping and robbery. “I found out being mad at myself wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I started going to church.”
He says that once his attitude changed, opportunities began to open up. He began talking and praying with Forsyth Correctional Center Chaplain Robert Wolfe, who referred Norfleet to Smith and the Eureka House.
“Being around Mr. Smith and the other spiritual supporters, I got relaxed and comfortable around them and I felt like I could talk to them,” Norfleet related. “That’s the most important thing coming out of prison: knowing I could trust somebody and they would give it to me straight up.”
The support and encouragement he received through the Eureka House gave Norfleet the strength to move forward in his spiritual journey and his life, he said. He managed to retain the North Carolina Department of Transportation job he started as an inmate, and now has been gainfully employed for five years.
Last year, he met his soulmate. The two were married in October and now share a home. Norfleet says he owes it all to Eureka House.
“If I didn’t have Mr. Smith or their supporters, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” declared the father of one. “…That’s been the most important thing for me, being around positive people who are going to keep me going forward.”
For more information about Eureka House programs or to donate to the ministry, visit HYPERLINK “http://www.eurekahouse.org” www.eurekahouse.org.