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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Natasha Rodgers grew up around her grandfather Simuel’s non-profit organization.
The group supported needy families out of the Humanity Baptist Church in Newark in the 60's and 70's with meal programs, a low-cost thrift-store, and a “safe-play street,” where she remembers playing with other children "without fear of being harmed" in a cordoned off section of the Church’s otherwise dangerous neighborhood.
Today, Rodgers carries on her grandfather’s work as the Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit Simuel Whitfield Simmons Organization (SWS).
SWS provides clothing, food, baby supplies, furniture, prom dresses, school supplies, and even holiday gifts to families in need, in addition to running numerous youth enrichment programs.
Currently, SWS is running a Thanksgiving Drive with Sirius XM alongside their annual Adopt-a-Family Christmas Drive.
Simuel’s Closet, a designer clothing store that operates as a part of the non-profit, partially funds the many community support initiatives and employs youth supported by the organization.
Simuel’s Closet stocks new clothing for men and women by Zara, Onassis, Tracy Reese, and other contemporary and classic fashion designers.
Rodgers recently relocated from Highland Park to 55 Morris Street in New Brunswick, on the ground floor of the downtown dormitory Rockoff Hall.
Natasha feels like she has come full cirlce, moving Simuel’s Closet to the former site of the city's Hub Teen Center, where she started doing community giveaways in the Hub City fifteen years ago.
“Ed Spencer,who directs the Hub Teen Center today, gave me my first opportunity to do a community giveaway, where we lined up tables right along this street with clothing, food, and everything,” she reminisced. “He and his staff always committed to help [at the giveaways.]”
Natasha then began doing giveaways through the New Brunswick Free Public Library, on Livingston Avenue, where they continued to grow in size and impact.
In 2006, with the support of her volunteers and collaborators, Natasha founded the Simuel Whitfield Simmons Organization as a 501(c)3 non-profit, named in honor of her grandfather, Reverend Simuel Whitfield Simmons.
SUPPORTING GIFTED AND AT-RISK YOUTH
In addition to their regular food giveaways, clothing drives, and other material family assistance, the Simuel Whitfield Simmons Organization runs successful youth support programs, including a comprehensive educational program entitled Vision Without Boundaries and an at-risk youth mentorship program, aptly named "Who Am I?"
In the program, at-risk boys learn how to tie ties, do their own laundry, and make positive daily decisions.
"Who Am I?" participants are also taught successful school and workplace habits and are invited to networking and job placement events.
As a part of "Vision Without Boundaries," SWS partners with Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to run Science Health Days, during which labcoat-clad SWS youth learn about the human body while they observe doctors and nurses working at the medical school.
RWJ Medical School students also provide free homework help and tutoring to SWS youth aged 12-17.
The Princeton Review also partners with SWS to provide their 10th and 11th graders with free SAT prep courses, and youth who are interested in pursuing higher education have opportunities to tour Yale, Brown, and Harvard through SWS partnerships with minority fraternities.
Students in these programs learn not just what a college education is, they also learn that college education is within their reach.
For low-income students who do decide to pursue higher education, SWS runs a college send-off program that provides school supplies, food, and toiletries to first-year students, supplies that are replenished during their winter break.
Low-income students may also receive financial support through the Alona C. Simmons Scholarship Fund, named for Natasha’s mother Alona, Simuel's daughter, who worked closely with her father at his Newark non-profit.
The Alona C. Simmons Scholarship Fund has supported over 25 students, including low-income college students, high school drop-outs prepared to re-enter school to pursue their GED or trade education, and single mothers hoping to advance their careers through education.
“JUST DO IT”
Natasha started the Simuel Whitfield Simmons Organization partly because she saw a large gap between many non-profits’ operations and the families they were supposed to be supporting.
“Out of college, I worked for a lot of non-profits,” said Natasha. “I saw a lot of loopholes in non-profits that I worked for, and I saw a lot of families not being serviced correctly.”
“You may be bringing money in, but that does not necessarily mean that the families who need it are getting it,” she continued.
“Because I saw so much of that… I decided to start my own non-profit and run it the way I think non-profits should be, asking ourselves continuously as a non-profit: are we really helping our community? Are we really meeting their needs and are they able to climb from where we find them to a better place, based on our service?”
Now, after starting in 2006, SWS supports families in counties throughout New Jersey, has held drives and giveaways in New York City, and is putting down organizational roots around Durham and Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Simuel used to live.
The hopeful ideology behind Natasha's founding of SWS may be her greatest contribution to those she supports. When asked about how she started the organization, she has one single inspirational message: everything is possible, you just have to put "one foot in front of the other" and do it.
“When I started the [Simuel Whitfield Simmons Organization], when I started Simuel’s Closet, I didn’t even look at, ‘Do we have all the money?' I didn’t even look at, ‘Do we have all the skills?’ I just did it,” said Natasha.
"The best piece of advice I can ever give someone, is to just do it. Don’t think about all the things preventing you from doing it, just do it. Too often, we’re thinking we need the lineup to happen first, we need the car, we need this, we need that…just do it, and everything will start to line up like a yellow brick road.”
“After you do that, you realize just how much you do have. You stop looking at the ‘what I don’t have,’ and you look at all that you are, and all the gifts you do have, and you no longer look at all of the things that got in your way when you started.”
Simuel’s Closet is located at 55 Morris Street, near the intersection with George Street in New Brunswick.