Thouron Scholar builds a strong foundation


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Photo by Stuart Watson

 

Nearly a year after the deaths in 1995 of his mother and older brother, Penn law student Omari Simmons (L’99), 26, created a foundation in their honor.

He raised money for the Simmons Memorial Foundation, benefiting poor students in rural Delaware. That same year, he gave out the first Cynthia T. Simmons Memorial scholarship — named after his mother, a Delaware elementary science teacher, who died in a car accident just a month before her oldest son, recent college graduate Nathaniel P. Simmons III, died from kidney disease.

That first 1996 scholarship went to a brilliant student with SAT scores approaching 1400. When she chose to attend a state school, Simmons knew that just giving a scholarship was not enough.

“College can really transform a person,” said Simmons, who went to Wake Forest and appreciated how going there had broadened his horizons. “You learn a lot, you have exposure to people and you realize that things are not necessarily limited to your environment.”

Currently working with 38 students, Simmons is hoping to bring them experiences he wished he’d had growing up in rural Milford, Del.

Back then, he was part of a college preparatory program sponsored by DuPont that brought together promising students from the region.

Today, his foundation draws students from that same DuPont program.

To prove to his students they could compete nationally, he contracted with the Princeton Review to increase their SAT scores. “What I’ve seen over a three-year period is SAT scores in the program have increased an average of 100 points,” he said. With the increased scores he has been able to persuade more of the students to apply to colleges out-of-state. But most have still chosen to attend local schools.

“A lot of programs are geared to inner-city kids. But actually, inner-city kids have less geographic isolation than a lot of the kids I deal with.”

So in 1998, he implemented a program bringing in outside speakers — investment bankers, lawyers, medical students and others — to give the students additional perspectives and strategies for success, and to serve as role models who’ve gone to fine schools and succeeded.

The foundation was not Simmons’ first mentoring program. He created one for junior high school students when he was in college. Going to law school at Penn placed him close enough to his Delaware roots to try and bring mentoring to a new and different level.

“I think if there is anything I have been good at, it’s good at addressing chaos. People are chaotic; people are complex. They don’t move once you just tell them to do something,” Simmons said. “So I had to find some way to find the results I wanted.”

Currently a clerk for Delaware Supreme Court Justice E. Norman Veasey, Simmons is excited about his plans to go to England next year as a Thouron Scholar (Current, March 23), an academic exchange program promoting closer friendship between the people of the United States and Britain.

“What I’m trying to do is take some of the advice I give to my kids — see beyond their environment, take advantage of each and every opportunity. It’s your life and you really have to make the most of it.”

He’s found someone to run the Delaware program in his absence. As for the long term, he’s expecting today’s students to return and become tomorrow’s volunteers.

“It’s something that’s going to perpetuate itself,” he said. “That’s my general plan for the next five years.”

Originally published on April 20, 2000