ARCADIA – Incredible stories of life change have been taking place in the Desoto County Jail in southwest Florida. Over the past five years, Tommy and Sandy Simmons, both chaplains for the facility, have witnessed countless life changes in the men and women they serve on a weekly basis.
What started as a handful of men and women attending Bible studies and prayer meetings has quickly grown to more than 200 who join weekly Bible studies, various classes, peer-led studies by the prisoners themselves, and a vibrant ministry serving their family members and children.
Tommy Simmons called prison ministry the “forgotten ministry” of local churches. “This is a mission field that is not being reached,” he said. “We, as believers, have to step up to the plate and get it done.”
Also serving as senior pastor of Community Christian Fellowship in Arcadia, Tommy Simmons has learned how to channel his church into addressing this major untapped mission field.
“This ministry is hard work, tiring, and demanding. But it’s very exciting work,” he said. “There are great frustrations, but also many great victories within this ministry.”
According to Marc Johnston, community ministry catalyst for the Florida Baptist Convention, several years ago, the Desoto County sheriff approached the couple about starting a chaplaincy ministry in the jail.
“As Tommy and Sandy visited the prisoners, they discovered they had great needs spiritually, emotionally and socially. They developed a ministry focused on discipleship,” Johnston said.
“They see the prisoners as humans, created by God needing help to find their way in life. The Lord gave the Simmons a desire to minister to their families as well as help the offenders re-enter society when they are released.”
“The Simmons have great passion and desire to help the prisoners. God has called them into this needed ministry.”
From day one, Sandy Simmons, a certified chaplain affiliated with the North American Mission Board and Florida Baptist Convention, had a desire to serve the children and family members of the jail’s population. With a goal of pointing the children to Jesus, she launched a ‘Happy Birthday Jesus’ party. Now serving more than 100 children, the party and events throughout the year seek to show the families they have a family of believers willing to serve and love them. Realizing that mostly family members and grandparents chip in to care for the children, the chaplain also began hosting a caregivers dinner once a month.
“These are really a great group of people needing support,” she said. “The prisoners and their families need a place where they feel warm and accepted…where they have hope and where they can turn things around.”
Tommy Simmons said recently the offenders have taken it upon themselves to lead Bible studies for their individual living quarters and appoint peer-pastors to serve within the jail.
To accomplish the task of training and supplying the peer-pastors with curriculum and devotionals, they depend heavily on older, donated Sunday School materials from local churches. With over 40 requests for Bibles, books, and devotionals a week, meeting these requests are essential to continuing the spread of the gospel within the facility.
Wanting to serve the prisoners and their families transition to life after incarceration, the Simmons created the Alternative Incentives Ministries (AIM) Center. The AIM Center, a multi-purpose storefront located in Arcadia, is a dedicated space used to serve the offenders’ children and host events including caregiver dinners and parenting classes.
Having served 60 years in ministry, Tommy Simmons has found similarities between prison chaplaincy and serving as a pastor. He encourages others to meet people right where they are and to give them Jesus.
“It is deeply ingrained in me that people are genuinely important,” he said. “No matter who they are, people are worth helping.”
With so many stories of visible life change, the couple is not looking to slow down anytime soon.
“We are motivated to keep serving in this ministry,” he said. “This is too big of a mission field and too many people to reach to stop pressing forward.”
The couple plans to launch a weekly Celebrate Recovery class at the AIM Center in January. They also plan to revisit an original dream of theirs to open Hope House, a place for offenders to call home immediately following their release. Their hope is that this home will provide a transitional, “restorative place for clean and healthy living,” she said.
“It’s a hard ministry,” he said. “But we have to keep pursuing what God has called us to do no matter what successes or hard times come from it.”
For more information about the ministry, you can contact the church office at ccfarcadia.com or P.O. Box 447, Arcadia, FL 34265.