After being convicted of murder at age 17 and serving nearly 30 years in prison, Kimberly Simmons-Woodson was determined to “spend the rest of [her] life doing something positive.”
She was a part of the first class of Bags to Butterflies participants, and she made handbags and received employment assistance services. Today, Woodson is the founder of her own nonprofit called Redeeming Kimberly. She is also working to assist returning citizens with food, housing, and social services needs.
“We are incredibly proud of Kim,” says Michelle Smart, founder of Bags to Butterflies, a Detroit-based social enterprise that supports women re-entering the community after being released from prison. “We support her whenever we can.”
Support is the cornerstone of Bags to Butterflies through their services, their handbags, and by helping to change stereotypes of formerly incarcerated people. “Most people have an image of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated women that is inaccurate,” Smart explains. “They see them as wild or uneducated. They are also often perceived as lazy. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
According to The Sentencing Project, between 1980 and 2017, the number of incarcerated women in America increased by more than 750%. The state of Oklahoma has the highest rate of incarcerated women, while Michigan falls in the bottom third. Nearly half of the women incarcerated in America are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses.
Smart was inspired to form the organization when the daughter of a close friend was incarcerated. The personal experience helped her empathize with returning citizens as well as how outreach efforts could cut the risk of recidivism.
“During our beginning stages, we met with women who had spent up to 30 years in prison,” Smart says. “They stated that their biggest barriers were housing and employment. So, that’s what we worked to address.”
Bags to Butterflies is a workforce development program that provides employment and training opportunities as well as help with soft skills, says Smart, such as resume writing, interviewing, and time management. Bags to Butterflies also works closely with Dress for Success, and even supports the participants through hair makeovers to boost their confidence as they interview for jobs.
However, one of the most unique functions of the organization is to create one-of-a-kind handbags made from reclaimed wood. The pieces are functional, yet they look like custom art.
“I never thought of myself as an artistic person until I had a difficult experience in my own life, and I took a class on creating stained glass,” Smart explains. “I came to realize how art could inspire and help heal, as well as be a source of income.”
The reclaimed wood is symbolic because it's a material that was seen as disposable transformed into something beautiful.
“The ladies put a lot of themselves into the bags,” Smart says, “From the colors that they choose, to the design, in a way each bag is a way for them to tell their story.”
According to Smart, it takes about six months for a formerly incarcerated woman to become reacclimated to society. This could mean finding housing, identification, resources for medical treatment, and transportation. As well as searching for viable employment. “These women don’t want to be judged for their pasts,” she says. “They want to focus on today.”
Now in its fifth year, Bags to Butterflies is a nine-month program. During their training, participants are paid a living wage. They also receive a portion of the proceeds from the handbags they create.
Bags to Butterflies is raising funds to relocate to a home on the campus of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in the North End. In their new location, they will be able to continue to provide services and have an official home base to sell their wares. Further, they hope that the farm program could be another source of employment for participants.
“What we really need from the community is engagement,” Smart says. “Support us by purchasing our products, that will really help us in continuing our mission in helping these ladies when they come home.”
Bags to Butterflies handbags are priced between $45 and $125. To learn more about Bags to Butterflies or to purchase a handbag, visit bagstobutterflies.com