Philadelphia home builder constructs safe, secure home for homeless mothers and children.

When "Lawanda" first came to Project Rainbow at Drueding Center in hardscrabble North Philadelphia, all she owned was "the air in [her] lungs" and a fervent desire to get clean of drugs.

Her addiction had caused the state to take her children away. With no place to live, no income, no job history, and no skills, the 28-year-old woman had nowhere to go but back to the streets and the crack cocaine that was destroying her life. Lawanda was at the end of her rope. Until 1987, Philadelphia had no transitional housing for homeless mothers with children. Her only option was to stay at one of the city's shelters, which were not suitable places in which to raise a family.

Until the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer, a Catholic order associated with the Holy Redeemer Health System, opened Project Rainbow, there was no place for homeless women and children in Philadelphia to live while the mothers were undergoing detox and rehab, going back to school, and getting job training. The Sisters were in the unique position of having a facility that could, with substantial renovations, become the city's first transitional home for homeless mothers with children and for abused women.

Family history

In 1930, brothers Henry and Charles Drueding established an infirmary to care for the employees of their Drueding Brothers Textile Manufacturing Co. in North Philadelphia. After World War II, the textile industry in the North was decimated by more modern facilities with cheaper rates in the South. The Drueding family closed their factory but created an endowment to keep the infirmary operating to provide services to their former employees.

In 1954, the Drueding family converted the facility into a nonprofit nursing home managed by the Sisters. In 1985, the family gave the building to the Sisters, asking only that it be used to continue to meet the community's needs. After conducting an extensive social needs survey of the surrounding area with the Drueding family's help, the Sisters concluded that homeless mothers with children were most in need of urgent assistance in the declining urban neighborhood. After converting the old infirmary into 20 one-bedroom apartments, in January 1987, Drueding Center/Project Rainbow began serving its first families.

That's where Bernard "Bernie" J. Drueding entered the picture.

Master builder

Drueding, a Philadelphia-based custom home builder with four employees, plus his wife as bookkeeper, posted sales of $4.9 million in 2001. The company develops small residential communities on infill sites in established high-end neighborhoods along the Main Line area of Delaware and Chester counties, Pa., 30 minutes west of downtown Philly.

As president of B.J. Drueding Builders, he built five custom homes in 2000, ranging from $800,000 to $1.5 million. A member and past president of the Main Line Builders Association, Drueding is no slouch when it comes to serving his industry. He also is an active member in the HBA of Delaware and Chester counties and the NAHB.

Having grown up watching his family finance the lifelong medical care for aging workers of their family's long-ago closed leather and chamois processing factory at Master and Fourth streets, Drueding understood that his family considered it proper to share their blessings. After giving the Sisters the property, Drueding advised the nuns on how to structure their area needs survey to determine the best use of the structure.

One thing led to another and before he knew it, Drueding became a member of the organization's board and helped raise $1.1 million to purchase and renovate a 22,000-square-foot vacant adjacent warehouse into an "After-Care Program" to help former center residents maintain their self-sufficiency.

Reason to live

Now, the formerly homeless Lawanda is a nursing assistant with her own apartment and a GED. "The Drueding Center gave me a place to live. They helped with my dependency and helped me get my education. But most important, they helped me get my kids through the courts by being my character witnesses and telling the judge they were giving me job training and helping me finish my schooling. They did everything for me. I had nothing," she says, as tears freely flow down her cheeks.

Another center graduate, "Maria," now works as a Realtor-associate. "People like me had no place else to go. The center gave me a reason to keep on living. They helped me get into a career I never would have dreamed of and helped me get a place for my kids."

To Linda Ann Galante, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based law firm of Stradley Ronon, Drueding is so willing to help out with his time and finances because his faith propels him to care about others. "He is one of the most pleasant, honorable, honest, and ethical men I have ever met. He has a great sense of humor, no self-righteousness or arrogance, and a self-effacing manner. He is just a wonderful, wonderful man who realizes, like I do, that if you are going to get to Heaven, this is one good way to get there." Galante served as the Drueding Center/Project Rainbow's board chairwoman when Drueding was vice chair.

Plumb line

For Sister Ellen Marvel, project president, Drueding has become her plumb line to help her stay on a straight course in handling business decisions, overseeing construction and renovation projects at the center, and raising funds. "No one is more generous with his time and money than Bernie, and no one is better at raising funds," Sister Marvel says, beaming as she speaks. "Whenever a question crops up I don't know the answer to, I call Bernie. No matter where he is, I can immediately reach him, or he'll call me right back. If he doesn't know the answer, he'll often drop what he is doing and find out."

Bernard Drueding followed his father's lead and converted the family's workplace infirmary into first an old-age home and then into a long-term residential facility for homeless mothers and their children. [Photo: Emmett Martin]

One of Drueding's competitors and sometimes joint venture partner, Nelson "Chip" Vaughan of Vaughan and Sons Builders, has seen Drueding "put his business aside to do things for the center. He's always available to them. If they have a need, he's there, trying to fill it. You gotta admire that."

Vaughan, who is actively involved in several community projects, says most Americans would be "surprised to know how many home builders have a lifelong commitment to community service."

"We all know about the big builders," Vaughan adds, "but I'm talking about the small builders with the hearts of gold, who sponsor Little League baseball teams and renovate housing for the aged or underprivileged. I think builders are so willing to help out and get involved because they are all pretty much salt-of-the-earth types. But nobody really knows how much volunteer work they do."

Benefiting Charity

The $100,000 prize awarded to Bernard Drueding will be donated to Project Rainbow at Drueding Center. When it opened in January 1987, the Drueding Center became Philadelphia's first transitional living center for homeless mothers and children. There, abused and homeless women are given a place to live, medical care, and job training, and they are able to complete school or attend college or trade schools. Their children live with them and can attend the center's child care facility and the after-school programs.

Back to Hearts of Gold