First Lady Wolf Visits Innovative Women’s Reentry Programs in Philadelphia, Highlights Governor’s Proposed $1 Million Investment in Women’s Reentry

March 11, 2022

First Lady Frances Wolf reiterated the Wolf Administration’s commitment to criminal justice reform and restorative justice while visiting three Philadelphia-based organizations that provide reentry programming and services to female returning citizens in Philadelphia and surrounding areas. Mrs. Wolf stopped by Why Not Prosper,Ardella’s House,and The Wardrobe to tour their spaces, learn more about their programs, and share Governor ​Tom Wolf’s budget proposal.

In his 2022 budget, Governor Wolf is proposing a $1 million investment for reentry services at the local level for women to give them the best opportunity to start fresh and reduce recidivism.

“There are phenomenal programs addressing the needs of female reentrants across the state, and meeting the passionate women who are spearheading them has urged me to visit and hear more about their work,” said First Lady Wolf. “Seeing how strong these organizations’ relationships are with their communities ensures me that investments in them will result in positive outcomes for the women they serve. I hope that our legislators and the community at large see the impact these organizations are having and continue supporting them, too.”  

The First Lady began her visit at Why Not Prosper, a grassroots nonprofit founded by a formerly incarcerated woman for other formerly incarcerated women. After overcoming her own battles with incarceration and addiction, as well as rejection from employers, landlords, and other social services upon returning from prison, founder Reverend Michelle Simmons opened Why Not Prosper to support other women in similar situations.

Why Not Prosper’s program helps women find and retain employment; increase their job skills; secure safe and affordable housing; abstain from alcohol and illicit drugs; reunite with their children; and reduce recidivism. In the residential program, women can receive trauma-informed therapy, attend 12-step recovery meetings, and find assistance from the other women in navigating their reentry process.

The first lady met with Reverend Simmons and several women of Why Not Prosper, including members of its Sisters With A Goal program, or S.W.A.G. S.W.A.G. is part of Why Not Prosper’s social justice arm and is a group of formerly incarcerated women helping one another. Participants are trained in self-defense, community engagement, participatory action, and more. Since it opened, Why Not Prosper has helped more than 10,000 women and will soon open a Harrisburg location.

“We are overwhelmed with gratitude to have the First Lady visit with us,” said Rev. Simmons.  “Why Not Prosper and the S.W.A.G program are excited to see her join us in our advocacy and champion women’s reentry.”

Then, the First Lady stopped by Ardella’s House, a service and advocacy organization committed to helping women with criminal justice histories realize new possibilities for themselves and their families. Founded in 2010 by Tonie Willis, Ardella’s House assists over 800 women and their families annually, offering a continuum of care in the areas of employment, housing, family, health and wellbeing, and criminal justice compliance. Other services include parenting sessions, one-on-one mentoring, and health and sexuality services.

Willis, too, has had her own experience with the criminal justice system and encountered firsthand the hurdles that women endure as they work to reestablish their lives and rebuild their families following incarceration. Ardella’s House encourages women to be their own advocates and shows them how to overcome the stigma of incarceration.

“The work of servicing people, particularly women who are justice impacted, is a collective community effort,” said Willis. “Those closest to the problems are often closest to the solutions but furthest from resources and power. We are grateful Pennsylvania’s First Lady is committed to closing that gap and bringing other entities in to fill the void.”

Both Reverend Michelle Simmons and Tonie Willis shed light on the unique challenges women face after incarceration as panelists on the first lady’s reentry roundtable series.

The first lady finished her tour at The Wardrobe, where she learned of their pilot program, Returning Wardrobe.

“For 26 years, The Wardrobe has had one guiding principle: everyone and everything deserves a second chance. When working with formerly justice involved individuals, this statement takes on a new meaning,” said Sheri Cole, Director of The Wardrobe. “For some in our community, the journey to independence begins with stepping outside prison doors for the first time in years with the clothes on their back and a bus pass. Recognizing how hard it can be for justice-involved citizens to successfully return home with little or no support, The Wardrobe partnered this year with State Representative Jordan Harris and the PA Department of Human Services to pilot Returning Wardrobe. Through this program, our goal is to remove access to clothing as a barrier to community reentry and, ultimately, stable employment, which is important to reducing recidivism for people who are justice-involved.”

Founded in 1995, the Wardrobe (also known as Career Wardrobe) is a nonprofit social enterprise that uses clothing to inspire change. The Wardrobe services 5,000 clients each year and has found that

  • 98 percent felt more confident, better prepared, and more professional after their appointment with The Wardrobe.
  • 68 percent successfully transitioned to employment, with 86 percent earning more than $10.50/hour and holding down one job (versus multiple part-time jobs).
  • 60 percent successfully transitioned off cash assistance, although most are still reliant on food, housing, medical, or child care assistance, even when working.

On Friday, March 4, The Wardrobe announced Returning Wardrobe, which extends their clothing and styling services to provide formerly justice involved Pennsylvanians, including youth, free of charge. This pilot was made possible through the support of PA’s Dept. Of Human Services and Representative Jordan Harris, and since October, they have dressed over 300 returning citizens. Their goal is to outfit and assist the employment goals of 1,000 returning citizens this year through this program.  

Building on her personal connections to women’s reentry, First Lady Wolf has dedicated her public work to advocating for female returning citizens. Most recently, she led a virtual reentry roundtable series, Women in Reentry, which highlighted challenges for women reentering their communities.

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