If you happened upon any of the flyers or social media posts about SisterHearts Thrift Store in Arabi, Louisiana, or had the opportunity to speak with its founder, Ms. Maryam Henderson-Uloho and her son, Robert, you would be certain to see or hear the tagline “Not Your Average Thrift Store!” at some point.
This phrase holds true for SisterHearts, which doubles as a reentry and transitional housing facility for ex-offenders in St. Bernard Parish. This nonprofit organization transcends the ideals of community, opportunity, and charity by using its platform as a business to advocate for penal and criminal justice reform and advocacy on behalf of those that have been through the system.
SisterHearts began as an idea inspired by Maryam’s own story and experience with Louisiana’s criminal justice system. Maryam, a successful real estate investor with seven children, was arrested while on vacation in Louisiana, charged with armed robbery, aggravated assault, and later, obstruction of justice. She spent twelve and a half years in the Louisiana Correctional Institution for Women (LCIW), where she won awards for speaking and poetry, overcoming untold adversity, punishment, and persecution for her faith. Maryam found solace, not only in her faith but in her peers-her sister hearts- she grew to know and love during her time at LCIW.
Upon her release, Maryam understood that men and women who had served their time would need someone to give them a second chance. This understanding paralleled the central rationalizations behind thrift stores, places where items many people may see as trash or unworthy have the opportunity to be repurposed and given a new life, a second chance. With these thoughts in mind, Maryam began SisterHearts as a 4×6 flea market booth. Through her open heart and dedication, SisterHearts is now a storefront, event hall, and a reentry and transitional housing facility.
The store is currently located at 7519 W Judge Perez Drive in Arabi, Louisiana. Driving by you can’t miss the enormous thrift store signs and the array of their best donations displayed in the front. Currently, SisterHearts takes any items that individuals are willing to donate; they truly live by the motto “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The giant property is filled with items ranging from Mardi Gras beads and clothing to TVs. The hidden treasures that are found on the shelves of this thrift store are unlike anything you would find elsewhere.
The friendly faces of both Maryam and her son Robert greeting you at the door make the trip to this store worthwhile. As the owners of this successful business, their goals are set beyond just making a profit; they believe in quality customer service, as well as creating a loving environment for their workers. They strive to introduce formerly incarcerated people to the skills they may have lost in prison, including workplace competence and economic independence.
Maryam and Robert don’t show their appreciation for the individuals that go through their system strictly with words; in the front of the store they have a “SisterHearts Wall of Fame” where they hang framed pictures of every worker that has contributed to the store, including current and past employees. Any customer can see that the work done at this store comes from the heart, which is included in the name “SisterHearts.”
Ms. Maryam and Robert work hard every day to accomplish the myriad things on their to-do list. They take in a very large amount of donations, both monetary and in the form of bags of clothes and used items. Therefore, Robert’s main project in the near future is to organize all of the donations on the store floor and in the upstairs storage area (See fig. 1). He has noticed how he can promote certain items by placing them in the forefront of the store and can reveal some of the store’s many hidden treasures to its customers if the items are displayed correctly. Therefore, he hopes to reorganize all of the areas of the store in a way that is easy to browse through.
Ms. Maryam is passionate about spreading the love and kindness that she received upon reentry into society after incarceration. She wants to build a community of women, whom she calls her “Sister Hearts,” who love each other deeply and would drop anything to help a sister in need. This is the mission that she is working to exemplify through the store. She wants to provide a place for other previously incarcerated people to find cheap, high quality items to help them rebuild their lives after prison. More than that, though, Ms. Maryam wants to provide her employees and her customers with the hope and assistance they need to become prospering, loved members of society.