On Rifton Terrace, just off Route 213 in Rifton, there’s a three-story, 16-room house built in the late 19th century that for many decades served as a summer resort for visitors from Europe. Depending on where it was being marketed at any particular time, it went by the names of the Holland Inn and the Sweden Inn. Susan Brisbois grew up in the house next door, and recalls being a little girl peeking from her porch at the nude Europeans out in the yard using the old shower house.
That particular structure is now falling to pieces, and another outbuilding long used as a tavern is now a cottage occupied by Brisbois’ stepson Nicholas. “I remember when it was a bar with a screened-in porch. They would dance all night and listen to old-fashioned music.” Brisbois, now 55, lived in the cottage herself at age 21 with the girlfriend who would eventually become her wife, now known as Patricia Brisbois.
Susan has also lived in the former Holland Inn itself three times since it ceased to be a resort in the early 1970s. And just last June, she became its owner. “I’ve been watching this building for years because I have a special affection for this town,” she says.
But in those intervening decades, the old building became run-down and developed a reputation as a “rooming house filled with drug addicts,” Susan explains. “It was a cop spot for heroin and prescription medicines and pot. It got 97 police calls last year. The neighbors wanted it shut down.”
But Susan Brisbois is a woman on a mission. She got off to a rough start in life, growing up with an abusive father in that house next door. “When I was eight years old, my father taught me how to shut up my dog by shooting it in the head,” she relates. “I was a very wild and active child, and an alcoholic and drug addict from the age of 12.” In her 20s she was dealing drugs. “I bought a home in Tillson with drug money; five months later it burnt to the ground. That’s when I decided my life needed to change.”
Susan tried AA meetings at a friend’s suggestion, but “I hated it,” she says. “So I went to Ulster County Mental Health for a year, admitted myself to a day program. I was there five days a week from 9 to 2 and went to a meeting every single night…. I detoxed myself. The hardest thing I ever had to do in my life was getting clean.”
But once this restless and energetic woman sets her mind to something, she does it with a vengeance. Two years after she got clean of drugs and alcohol, she quit smoking cigarettes as well. And 22 years ago she enrolled at Sullivan County Community College to pursue an Associate’s Degree in Human Services and become a certified substance abuse counselor. She followed that up with another degree at Ulster Community in Recreational Therapy, then got certified to do mediation and more recently was trained in Aggression Replacement Therapy and Change of Thinking.
These days, Susan’s professional specialty is relapse prevention; she’s currently working at Orange County’s Youth Advocate Program. But, she says, “There is nothing solely for women in Ulster County…no supportive housing anywhere unless there’s domestic violence.” So when the former Holland Inn came on the market, she made her long-planned move and purchased the dilapidated building this past June, intending to convert it into a boardinghouse exclusively for women in recovery from substance abuse. She had already built her own house not far away, and immediately put her contracting skills to work doing extensive renovations.
“I did all this work in here,” she says, taking the New Paltz Times on a tour of the spruced-up building. “Imagine 17 cats running around here! I had to tear out most of the floors, some walls, all the kitchen cabinets. All the toilets were raised and replaced.” Although some original furnishings remain, such as the fabulous, massive six-burner stove that dominates the big institutional kitchen, the former drug den — renamed Serenity Scene — now looks clean and fresh and appealing. The rooms are painted in cheery colors with lots of warm woodwork, and are filled with sturdy, comfortable secondhand furniture, much of it refinished by Susan. The big living room has an electric hearth and a flat-screen TV at one end and an upright piano along one wall. There’s also a huge rear deck with a canopy, and a big grassy yard with a firepit.
Already four women, referred by social services and drug and alcohol treatment agencies, are living at Serenity Scene, which has capacity to house 12 to 14. “There are rules,” says Susan. “They have to be 90 days sober. They can’t just live here and hang out all day. They have to be in an outpatient program, in school, working or volunteering regularly. They have to attend meetings three to five times a week, and have a sponsor with more clean time than they have and who works the 12 steps.”
Although the space is cozy and welcoming and Susan keeps coming up with more healthy and fun activities for her charges, security at Serenity Scene is tight. Residents must observe curfews, agree to randomly scheduled urine tests and room searches, and there are closed-circuit cameras that Susan can monitor from home. Anyone who doesn’t remain consistently clean and sober — as she herself has now managed for 25 years straight — will not be permitted to stay. “It only takes one person to jeopardize the whole house,” she notes. “We want to give women a safe environment, help them build their self-esteem, get a job, get back in the groove, live life on life’s terms.”
Serenity Scene is incorporated, for Susan’s legal protection, but she has not yet set it up as a 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit. “I’ve taken my life savings to make this place work,” she says. Nevertheless, groups and individuals have begun to come forward to donate funds, furnishings and services. She has one person already lined up to give piano lessons and another to conduct Reiki workshops. She’d love to find a yoga instructor, someone to offer manicures or hairstyling on-site, someone to donate a vehicle or pay the costs of outings, like movie tickets.
If you’d like to help out in some way to get these women back on their feet, you can call Susan Brisbois at (845) 430-3702 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Or come to the Serenity Scene Grand Opening Open House at 15 Rifton Terrace on Friday, December 11 from 2 to 6 p.m.