…Allied portraits: Jason Simmers

Over the past several months I’ve been working on a project focused on an employment-readiness program near south-side Madison’s Allied Drive.   The program has effected some incredibly powerful changes in the lives of those who have participated. And, as I’ve written in earlier posts, I’ve found the personal stories of the program’s participants more interesting than the program itself.

This is the second post in a series of portraits I’m arranging on some of the people I’ve met

Jason Simmers, 29, is a father, felon and MAP graduate.  Originally from Cudahy, Wisconsin, Simmers lived a transient lifestyle while growing up.  Living briefly in Toronto, Arizona, and the Carolinas, Simmers found drugs, alcohol and subsequent legal troubles at an early age.  At 19, Simmers sat his first prison term in Wisconsin for an OWI.  Several years later, after an attempted geographical cure, he returned to Wisconsin and burglarized a convenience store.

“We didn’t have to trash  the place,” said Simmers.  “We didn’t have to take the aspirin or the beef jerky.  We could’ve just taken the money, the booze, and the smokes and been out of there.  But, like a dumbass, I had to keep fueling my fire.”

Simmers later confessed to the crimes, and was sentenced to three years in prison.  After his release, he moved to Madison and supported himself by working odd construction jobs and riding his bike to work at McDonald’s.

“I was just living a meager little existence.  Working odd jobs, drinking til the sun came up and doing it all over again,” said Simmers.

He said around this time in 2009, he was renting an apartment near Allied Drive and sleeping on a hardwood floor.  Simmers had a friend and downstairs neighbor, a man named Darnell, who encouraged him to take part in MAP.

“Darnell told me he went to prison, he couldn’t find help, and then he went to MAP and it worked.  It took him about a year to talk to me into to it, but I finally gave in.”

Simmers said that while he felt out of place during his first class–he was the only white student present–it didn’t take long for him to feel like he belonged.  He credits MAP’s director, Diana Shinall, with his willingness to continue the program.

“I think Diana tricked…for the better.  She believed in me until I could believe in myself.”

Simmers finished at the top of his class and spoke at the graduation ceremony.  Later, Shinall called to tell him she’d arranged a job interview for a maintenance position at the Madison’s Children’s Museum.

“I didn’t think I’d get the job, but I went out anyway and bought myself a new pair of shoes.  I got a haircut.  I made sure I brought a pen,” said Simmers.

“I went into the office and I shook the man’s hand.  I sat down, and I was like, ‘dude, I’m not going to waste your time.  I’ve been to prison.  I have a long criminal history.’  But the man who was interviewing me just said,  ‘OK.  But what can you do?’”

Simmers, who said his first toy was a screw driver–and only because he found it–has an impressive mechanical aptitude.  He told the interviewer he could do plumbing, drywall, he could take an engine apart and put it back together.  Simmers was hired, and now works full-time as the museum’s assistant building supervisor, completing routine maintenance checks and fixing equipment on exhibits when they malfunction.

When I interviewed Simmers for this slideshow, I ended with one question.  I asked him if grew up with insecure surroundings, without stability or routine, how security is manifested in his life today.  I’ll let him answer that question…

Click the pic to watch the slideshow