PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — After a decade working in the music industry for folks like Teddy Pendergrass and years at as a manager at an airline, Tonie Willis saw a problem and decided to fix it.
“Women are the fastest growing population that are becoming incarcerated,” she says, “but women do not get the support that men get.”
Willis’ solution was to found Ardella’s House, a non-profit that goes inside prisons to help women transition back into society. Since 2010, their volunteers counsel the women behind the walls by providing life skills classes, teaching the women to dream big and make better decisions for their lives.
“A woman has be mommy as soon as they step foot into the house– if they have a house to come home to,” says Willis.
And it’s not easy. Willis says many women are written off by their families once incarcerated.
“The men’s prisons are always packed on visiting day,” she says, “the women’s prisons aren’t.”
In 2014, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia released a report showing an 11 percent increase in arrests of women compared to a 5 percent increased among men. CLS also reported that 66 percent of the female arrests were of Black Women.
“We are a prison nation,” says Willis, “and these people are coming home eventually– so what are we doing to prepare them for when they come home?”
Willis says Ardella’s House hosts Christmas parties and free bus rides to Muncy Prison. They do vision boards behind the walls to help the women dream. She says Ardella’s House volunteers also identify women who have not had visits in months and help reunite families to provide support.
“There’s a lot of bitterness,” says Willis, “the kids are bitter, the parents are bitter– the woman may have stolen from them or fought with them– we help them work on those relationships before they get out.”
And once women are released, Ardella’s House gives support by providing toiletries, clothing, food, education and mentoring. Willis says her goal is to motivate the women they support to want more out of life.
“I want them to know their worth,” she says, “to want more for their life.”
Willis says their work spans to more than 800 women a year. She says they are currently renovating a house near 33rd and Ridge to provide housing and other support.
“I was blessed to have a house filled with love, with two parents,” says Willis, who is not married. “I feel like these are my children.”
Willis has never been incarcerated, yet she identifies with the women her organization serves because of her late mother, Ardella, who was a giver. She says their house was the place that people came to when they were in need.
“She was a giver…and this is her legacy,” says Willis.
As for how she feels when the women of Ardella’s House succeed: “I feel like a proud mother.”
For more on Ardella’s House or to donate, visit their website.