Who is Brenda Simmons?
When I was asked to interview Brenda Simmons for this project, I am mildly embarrassed to say I didn’t know anything about her. However, in many ways I believe it gave me the opportunity to receive her without any preconceived notions, allowing her humility and warmth to radiate beyond the measurement of her many accomplishments.
When I first encountered Brenda, I felt an immediate calm and sensed that this was a woman who was in touch with a deep inner contentedness and faith. Proud yet, humble, strong yet supple, Brenda Simmons is a very real woman whose own journey has lead her through the briar patch of life, and has emerged as someone who has not only discovered the power of her own inner strength but has spent a great many years helping others discover theirs as well.
Brenda was born and raised here in the village of Southampton. She herself experienced a challenging childhood and at early age Brenda found herself to be a single mother. Determined to be a nurturing, yet a positive and supportive role model in the lives of her children, Brenda went to school, got her associates degree in Computer Information Systems as well as completing an Entrepreneurial Assistance Program/with Distinction from Suffolk County Community College and their Technicenter. She got a job with the county and after over twenty five years of employment, Brenda worked her way to becoming a supervisor. After having a significant fall, and becoming disabled for a time, Brenda found herself soul searching and exploring the deeper questions of life.
In 1989, with only her passport and $42.00 in her pocket, Brenda was “lead” to participate on a mission trip to Africa with the great opportunity to explore her roots. After a short time in Johannesburg she headed to East Africa on an outreach cruise ship at a time of great turbulence in the area. Not sure if she would return alive, she was determined to face her fears and explore the opportunity to give back in a very real and tangible way. Her world and heart opened up as she discovered a deep connection with the country, the music and a love for the African people, who appreciated even the smallest of things that so many of us take for granted on a daily basis. The experience was life changing and she credits it with helping her to have clarity of vision, enhancing her heritage and bringing her to where she is today…
When Brenda returned to the states she went to work at Southampton High School as an assistant to the mentally challenged. In 1999 she was offered an opportunity to be a counselor at Southampton College with the Higher Education Opportunity Program –HEOP. She worked with inner city students, and headed the cultural programs and events for the HEOP program. In the process, Brenda began to discover creative talents that she did not know she possessed and she helped curate many cultural art shows. Later she brought those skills into her work curating public displays for the African American Museum of the East End. During her time at Southampton College she loved working, motivating, and advocating for her students. But after a short time was informed that her contract was to expire, finding her in the need to contemplate new employment.
Shortly after being informed of the expiration of the contract, miraculously Brenda was offered a position as Director with the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk County – EOC, who was venturing to open up a new office on the East End in Riverhead. While working as the Director, Brenda simultaneously worked as a family development worker whereby she counseled young woman and children, helping them to set goals for themselves. In order to enhance her skills in this venue Brenda furthered her education by attending Cornell University where she received her Family Development Credentials. This work brought her into situations that allowed her to witness a great deal into the hearts of fragile and vulnerable lives. The experience solidified her understanding of the necessity to be nonjudgmental. Brenda’s own self reflection and growth in relationship to this, enabled her to gain the trust of the people she was working with, and to teach them how to help themselves, thereby empowering them to live productive and meaningful lives.
It was during this phase of her life that she returned to night school full speed ahead to earn her bachelors degree in Community and Human Services, with a concentration on Family Advocacy from SUNY Empire State University, and received the Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence.
After 9/11, many of the non-profits were struggling with cutbacks and Brenda realized at the age of 50, she was facing the possibility of losing her job once again.
But fate seems to always be on her side in times of need and Brenda received a call from a long-time friend to help out with a local campaign. He thereafter strongly suggested she submit her resume to become the assistant to Mayor Mark Epley in Southampton Village. She did in fact do so, got the job and is a position that she currently maintains.
Meanwhile, in 2005 she has cofounded the African American Museum of the East End –AAMEE, which started out as a virtual museum, that encouraged scholastic participation to create arts, films, writings, and research based on black heritage and culture. The work Brenda has done with the county and the village, taught her about the laws and how to get things done. This was pivotal in persuading the town to donate the “Old Barber Shop” at 245 North Sea Road, as the museums permanent location. Although the building needs funding for restoration and is not open yet, the museums mission is “to treasure the past, tend to the present and transform the future.”
During the late 40’s the barber shop and beauty salon, was a “meeting place” where many African Americans on the East End met up, shared their stories and connected. The site has specific meaning to the African American community of Southampton and has personal significance to Brenda. She recalls going there as a child to not only have her hair done, but to help her Aunt Evelyn answer the phone and make appointments. She fondly recalls how her aunt taught her and all the young ladies the importance of social graces as well.
The museum not only celebrates notable African Americans, but also serves to teach locals of their own black heritage, where they came from, and celebrate the local, lesser known achievements. The center will offer programs to help educate, give pride to and encourage youth to act as contributors to their own community, which will be an asset to the entire community.
Additionally, Brenda is the producer/host of her own TV show on LTV called VOW-Voices of Wisdom which explores “REAL” lationships, and topics that are educational, informative, and sometime controversial. It can be viewed on channel 20 on Tuesday at 11:30 am and Sundays at 4:30 pm. Episodes can also be viewed on Youtube.
Serving as a life coach establishing LIFE- Living in Full Empowerment, Brenda counsels young mothers. She has also been a mentor in Riverhead Correctional Facility for the past twelve years helping to inspire and encourage inmates of the potential within, so that they too can put their lives back on track.
In 2003 Brenda received the Woman of Distinction Award-Black Million Women-Nassau County. In 2011 Brenda was selected 2nd Legislative District “Woman of Distinction Award” by Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman.
More recently in June of this year, Brenda was selected and was the recipient of the 2013 Distinguish Graduate award from SUNY Empire State College.
It would be a difficult task for most of us to hold a candle to the dedication and service Brenda Simmons has quietly demonstrated throughout her life. I believe in the importance of celebrating such individuals, for they are the light bearers that illuminate our understanding of what is possible and allow us to reflect on our own lives in a meaningful way. It has been an honor and a privilege to get to know Brenda Simmons. And not only do I, but all of us at Schmidt’s Market say thank you to Brenda for all the courage she has illustrated and the goodness she have shared.
Peace and blessings to you Brenda!
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