For years, Michelle Simmons was about as down and out as one can get. A crack-addicted prostitute floating in and out of jail, the Germantown native abandoned her two children and chased the pipe all the way into a box tent with bloody sheets on skid row in Los Angeles.
But tonight, at a recent party just outside the city, 43-year-old Simmons is the belle of the ball, a modern-day Cinderella. She glides across a ballroom floor beneath sparking chandeliers, radiant in a royal blue gown—tattoos and all. Hair fresh and makeup perfect, Simmons mingles with guests, a mix of family, friends and women like herself, ex-cons in various stages of moving on.
It’s the 10th anniversary of Why Not Prosper, a re-entry program for female ex-offenders founded by Simmons in 2001 after her sixth and final stint behind bars.
More than 100 people are gathered to celebrate the program’s commitment—and success—in assisting women in the state’s prison system by giving them the resources and support they need to re-enter society successfully.
At the helm of the dance floor, a projector clicks through snapshots of Simmons over the last decade—goofing around with staff; hugging Suze Orman on International Women’s Day 2008; in the Dominican Republic on one of her many missionary travels, smiling and squinting in the bright sunlight.
She smiles, coos, hugs and calls you “beautiful” at the end of every sentence. Ask anyone in the room—the reluctant but proud board members, the grant writer who keeps trying to quit, the women in her care who lash out when they’re frustrated—and they will tell you: It’s practically impossible to say no to Michelle Simmons.
When, at least twice this evening she’s referred to affectionately as a bulldozer, she laughs.
“This organization was built on the strength of one person,” says WNP Board President Brian Oglesby, by way of introduction. “Six years ago, when I met Michelle, one phrase came to mind: Pump the brakes!”
Familiar with Simmons’ almost fanatical drive, the audience laughs.
Simmons grips the podium with pride.
“If I was asked 10 years ago where I’d be today, I would have grossly underestimated,” she says to whoops and hollers. “We have done so much with so little for so long, that today, we can do anything with nothing.”
With just charm, drive, nickels and dimes, Simmons has mustered up a program that is accomplishing what the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections—with its bloated budget of $1.8 billion—states as its No. 1 goal: reduce the recidivism rate of ex-offenders.
Since starting as little more than a dedicated desk space, WNP has grown to include two resource centers including a residential transition house on Chelten Avenue in Germantown, where four to seven women live at any given time. So far, 93 women have entered the program and 55 have “graduated.”
Later tonight, three more will join the list of graduates.
With each graduation, the program gains momentum: A WNP creed is that every graduate needs to “reach back” and help another woman break the cycle.
“Seeing professional people with backgrounds like ours, and that they made it, gives us a good chance to see that we can make it,” says 49-year-old Carolyn Smith, a West Philly native and one of tonight’s grads.
Like most WNP residents, Smith met Simmons while still in jail. Simmons goes to prisons like SCI-Muncy in Lycoming County and Riverside Correctional Facility on State Road to hold presentations monthly.
“Michelle came in and did a presentation and I volunteered … I knew I wanted to get clean, because that last run was the worst of my life. I knew if I stayed out there [on the streets] I was gonna die,” Smith says.
Now, Smith has enrolled in community college to study behavioral health in the fall.