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Rev. Dr. Michelle Simmons: Founder and CEO of Why Not Prosper

Michelle started Why Not Prosper over two decades ago as a way to help women leaving the prison system. As a formerly incarcerated woman and recovered addict, Michelle is keenly aware of the issues these women face and helps them every step of the way to getting their lives back. Why Not Prosper assists women with everything from housing, to employment, to health to ensure they don’t end up back in the system.

Tell me about the women you are supporting with Why Not Prosper’s programs.

Why Not Prosper is a transitional house for women coming from jail, prison, and recovery programs. We provide women with a place to live until they can get back on their feet. Our motto is “offer women a hand up, not a hand out” because that is how you make a difference in someone’s life. At Why Not Prosper, we don’t have people just walk in. We build relationships with women while they are incarcerated, so when they are being released and have nowhere to go they can apply to live here. We make sure they have health care, insurance, an ID, a birth certificate, and all the essential things. We’ll help with the reunification process if they are trying to get their kids back and bring them to a doctor if they have health issues.

How has your experience being formerly incarcerated influenced the way you support other women?

I can relate to their struggles because I was in that position. I was in jail, I lost my kids, I struggled mentally. Now, I am back in the center of this to help others get through it so they don’t fall through the cracks. I teach them the things that helped me get through it. Going to meetings, getting a sponsor, getting a therapist, and journaling all helped me. My goal is to keep these women from using drugs, ending up on the street, or going back to jail. When a woman walks out of Why Not Prosper, I want her to have permanent, decent housing, reunification with her children, and be healthy.

What does the Why Not Prosper community look like?

Every woman who comes here gets a buddy to support them. Our graduates and alumni come over weekly to help empower the women and show them that they can succeed. Just this week we had a graduate come over to take one of our new women to a crisis center so she could get insurance because she can’t afford her medication. Peer-to-peer mentoring is so important and it’s amazing how involved our community is.

What has been the best part of starting Why Not Prosper?

Watching the women grow, flourish, and get their lives back. It’s the best when one of our women invites me over to her new apartment for dinner with her kids. This is my 21st year running the program and I want it to help women long after I retire. We’re opening up a retreat center in the Poconos where women can escape to play golf, relax on the beach, and be somewhere new. We also are opening a building that has 12 1-bedroom apartments for our women in Harrisburg, PA. As women dealing with incarceration, a lot of policy decisions are made on our behalf without our opinions being considered. We’re starting to get involved in participatory research so we can be involved in the policy that affects us directly.


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