Feb. 1, 2021 9:11 am

Philly’s hidden figures: They’ve been doing crucial and stellar work for years

In the first installment of our February editorial calendar topic, guest columnist Dr. Nikia Owens highlights three unsung community heroes whose work makes a tremendous difference in the lives of returning citizens in Philadelphia.

L to r: Wylie Belasik, Peggy Sims, Barry Johnson.

(Courtesy photos)

This guest column was written by Dr. Nikia Owens, the managing director of financial empowerment at United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.
Do we reward ego as opposed to excellence, popularity instead of productivity, and motive rather than merit?

I am often perplexed and find myself asking, does the “stage” truly tell the story of excellence and acknowledge the indubitable laborers? As a city challenged by poverty and moving to recover from a pandemic, there is a call and shift requiring us to build on strengths and not the struggle.

The strength is in the power of the people and the answer lies within them, the foot soldiers and the unsung community heroes.


Peggy Sims, founder/CEO of Sisters Returning Home (SRH) has been a fierce advocate and servant leader, giving light where there is darkness and creating a path where there is no foundation, for hundreds of women in, and exiting, the Pennsylvania prison system.

Sims partners with the Department of Corrections offering workforce development, reunification and mentoring to women exiting prison. Throughout the pandemic Sims continued to serve women exiting prison to ensure they were connected to critical resources and had a place to call home.

Since 2013 Sims has made it her mission to keep children connected to their incarcerated mothers at Cambridge Springs and Muncy prisons. Sims transported children at least twice a year to spend the entire day with their mothers.

There was a particular case I recall where a mother had fourteen (14) children and Sims ensured all the children visited their mother twice every year,making the nine-hour trip to Cambridge Springs prison. Today, since being released that mother visits SRH weekly and the family is doing well.

Sims is relentless in opening the window of opportunity for women involved in the prison system, but more importantly she creates a more promising and comfortable future for the children.

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Wylie Belasik, owner of Subversus Fitness, and founder and executive director of UliftU, champions improving the health of impoverished communities through his partnership with the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Chester, developing, training and certifying incarcerated men as coaches so once released, the men are employable in a field where their criminal record will not present as a barrier.

Belasik offers the coaches employment opportunities within his gym and the low-income communities ULiftU serves. The men exiting SCI Chester who become coaches discover not only a healthy way to live but have the opportunity to go into their communities to promote a healthier lifestyle and build a better community.

Belasik continued to employ his coaches despite the challenges faced by the COVID pandemic, and went on to partner with the School District of Philadelphia to provide virtual fitness classes for students.

ULiftU has been instrumental in changing the trajectory of at-risk youth by matching its coaches as mentors with the youth—  avoiding further entry into the juvenile justice system.

Belasik is a true innovator and champion for social and criminal justice, and even when the believers were few, he cast his net wider in finding a resolve to health disparities in low-income communities and a healthier path for returning citizens.

While Barry Johnson, the director of Uplift Solution‘s Workforces Solutions may hold a master’s certification in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a bachelor of science and master’s in Business Administration, his lived prison experience combined with his academic training has commissioned him to be one of the most effective change agents for criminal justice reform and restoring the lives of Philadelphia’s returning citizens.

Over the past two years Johnson’s leadership helped build a workforce program that transformed the lives of more than 500 returning citizens, experiencing a 2% recidivism rate. Johnson’s success led to an inroad for the program to train work release inmates through a partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Prisons.

"We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity."
Dr. Nikia Owens, quoting MLK

He would later partner with the State Correction Institute Phoenixville and establish a second workforce training center in Chester.

When considering the immense challenges returning citizens face and the inadequate response to the need, it would be a missed opportunity not to adduce a figure worth more than their weight in gold.

As we seek to create a more prosperous Philadelphia for all, in the words of Martin Luther King: “We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity.”

We must never forget we are the change we wish to see.


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