They had all traveled the same difficult road. At one time or another, all had been incarcerated. Now they shared a commitment to leading productive lives.
The occasion was the inaugural Why Not Prosper cookout and reunion. The more than 20 women who came together on a sunny Saturday in Germantown were all past or present participants in the program, which assists women who are or have been incarcerated with getting back on their feet and adjusting to life outside prison walls.
Why Not Prosper was founded in 2000 by the Rev. Michelle Simmons, a Germantown native. Some 22 years ago, Simmons’s life was at a crossroads. She had returned to the Philadelphia area after spending three separate stints, totaling six years, in the California prison system for drug and prostitution-related offenses.
But she came home with a sense of purpose.
“When I was sitting in jail I made a conscious decision to come home and get myself together and stay clean,” Simmons said. “Once I came home from LA I had a made-up mind to get my children (two daughters) back out of custody and to get myself together.”
Simmons launched Why Not Prosper, operating out of a home in Trooper, in Montgomery County, not far from Norristown. Today, the program utilizes three locations in Germantown, which 25 women., some of them with children, call home.
Simmons herself has gone on to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate; she was ordained in 2005. In April of 2015 she received a full pardon from California Governor Jerry Brown.
After nearly two decades of serving women in need, Simmons remains committed to her cause. “Our mission statement is to help women stay clean, she says. “That comes first. We make sure they go to substance abuse treatment programs; we make sure they go to meetings.
“The second part is (about making) family-sustaining wages, we help them get a job and learn how to keep a job and third us to reunite with their children. We do a lot with family reunification.”
Why Not Prosper also helps program participants deal with issues that impact their emotional well-being.
“You’ve got trauma,” Simmons says, “you’ve got mental health, you’ve got domestic violence, so we do a lot of workshops and sessions around all those dynamics to help them became become whole.”
The women also receive assistance with everyday tasks that most of us take for granted, including opening a bank account and obtaining a valid form of ID.
Simmons says she wants the participants in her program to develop good decision-making skills and to be able to cope with the day-to-day challenges of life.
Faith B. is one of Why Not Prosper’s ongoing success stories. After high school, she spent six years in the military before falling victim to crack cocaine and alcohol and spending time in prison.
On the day she spoke with The Leader she had been clean for 22 months and eight days.
“I came here and I was homeless,” she said. Rev. Michelle allowed me to come in and get myself together.”
With Simmons’s encouragement Faith, who is in her mid-50s, enrolled at Harcum College in Bryn Mawr and recently completed her freshman year with a 4.0 GPA. Bartley attended the reunion and was pleased to reconnect with past graduates of the Why Not Prosper program.
“It was inspiring to see that they’re still doing what they need to do,” she said.
Faith B. wants to earn an associate’s degree in human services and, eventually, a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science. To her, it’s about giving back to those who have helped her on her own journey.
“The giveback to me would be to help other women like myself,” she said, “and maybe give back what was so freely given to me.”