Tonie Willis is the founder of Ardella’s House in Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that specializes in assisting women directly impacted by mass incarceration.
Recently, the organization hosted a local Day of Empathy in Philadelphia to discuss dignity for incarcerated women, alternatives to incarceration in diversionary programs and the importance of keeping individuals out of prison and, instead, connected to programs that more “effectively and efficiently address behavioral health conditions that underlie criminal behaviors.”
The event was nothing new for Willis, whose past has taken her around the globe and into the world of entertainers and music’s elite as a promoter of music’s top artists for Warner Bros. Records. However, she never lost sight of her most important skillset: Her personal touch and a helping hand. She is now focusing her work as founder and director of Ardella’s House.
Ardella’s House is a service and advocacy organization committed to helping women with criminal justice histories realize new possibilities for themselves and their families. Ardella’s House program services make it possible for women to obtain work, housing and health care, to rebuild their families, and to participate fully in civic life.
PW recently caught up with Willis to talk about her work and Ardella House’s mission.
Your bio says that your greatest calling was to “to create a haven for women who are in need of experiencing that consummate grace and uplifting spirit.” Why did you feel such a strong calling to create Ardella’s House?
When I started Ardella’s House, I noticed there was a lot of programming for men. Even in prison, the programming was for men, the prison jumpsuits are designed for men. You know the saying “one size fits all’? Well, in a lot of cases, it’s not one size fits all. It was important to have something specifically for women while serving their time. Women are the forgotten population when it comes to mass incarceration and, so, I knew it was important for Ardella’s House to give women a voice.
Describe the services Ardella’s House provides.
We have a 12-week program called Life Interrupted. Life Interrupted helps build the foundation for women once they have been released from prison because it is important that they have an exit plan as they re-enter society. We provide mentoring, family reunification, job readiness, housing and parenting classes.
““It was difficult in the beginning. No one wanted to deal with women who were incarcerated. For many years, this was a one-woman show. When I started Ardella’s House, I was housing women in my home who could not get a ‘home plan.’ A home plan is necessary for a woman to be released in someone’s custody for a certain time period.”Tonie Willis, founder of Ardella’s House
Talk a little about the early days. How did you come up with the name? Was it difficult to find people to help start the house?
Ardella is my mother who passed away in 2009, and Ardella’s House was created in 2010. My mother didn’t believe in throwing away people. My mother always saw good in everyone, even when no one else saw it. We could be talking about someone and biting her back out, and my mother would always chime in with something good about that person. Ardella’s House is a part of her legacy.
It was difficult in the beginning. No one wanted to deal with women who were incarcerated. For many years, this was a one-woman show. When I started Ardella’s House, I was housing women in my home who could not get a “home plan.” A home plan is necessary for a woman to be released in someone’s custody for a certain time period.
How has Ardella’s House grown since its founding 10 years ago?
It’s grown as far as the increased number of women we have served and made an impact on their lives. Correctional institutions have even asked us to work with men because our program is that good. We have grown and we still have a long way to go. We would like to see many more Ardella’s Houses in the City of Philadelphia.
What are some of the house’s greatest accomplishments?
When we have helped women gain custody of their children when women learn how to advocate for themselves when women are going back to school and learning how to take care of their family on their own without returning to the things that caused them to be incarcerated in the first place.
Has the coronavirus impacted your work? Has it created new challenges for you or women impacted by mass incarceration?
Definitely. Our program starts behind the wall and we can’t go into the prisons because they are on lockdown due to the coronavirus. Teaching the women how to be safe and teaching them how they’re supposed to act and giving them guidance such as hygiene practices has impacted our work tremendously on what we are able to do during these difficult times.
What is at the top of your “to-do” list? What changes or initiatives are you championing at the moment?
Currently, we and our partners at Cut 50 have introduced legislation in PA called the Dignity Act for incarcerated women campaign. By bringing back dignity for incarcerated women and bringing legislation to the table, we allow women to feel like women. They have feminine hygiene products, pregnant women aren’t placed in solitary confinement and not having unlimited phone calls with their children, and not being subject to cavity searches by male guards. We just want women who are incarcerated to be treated with basic human decency.
How can people get involved with and help Ardella’s House?
We’re always looking for mentors to encourage these women! They can always call us, email us, connect with us through social media and even write us a letter. We would like to have more people involved. Please visit ArdellasHouse.com for more information.