The September 2012 Bulls Eye Feature: Heather Simmons

The owner of an often dry and always self-deprecating sense of humor (she admits that she’s been described as “a little, tiny Steve Sweeney”) Gloucester County’s newest, “littlest,” and only female Freeholder, Heather Simmons, can also point out some distinct differences between herself and the physically imposing State Senate President.

For example, Simmons owns more than 120 pairs of shoes. Can the bear-like union leader and former Freeholder Director match that?

And, by the way, owning that many shoes is not as superficial or self-absorbed as it might seem at first glance.

Those who know her well, realize that for Simmons her fragile health (she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at the age of 14) is a constant concern. So, often when she’s asked how she feels, her response is a diverting “I look great.” Which, confidential aide and close friend Danielle Spence says, is “almost always the case.”

Simmons has described it this way. “I tend in my professional and personal life to confound expectations. When people see a small, young-looking woman, they tend to think ‘little in spirit,’ or ‘little’ in so many ways. I think I surprise people in what I’m capable of achieving, despite my diminutive appearance.”

As for any disadvantages that come with being only 5 feet tall, Simmons admits (tongue firmly in cheek) to only one. “It’s that my husband is 6’ 4” and I can’t kiss him without his cooperation. Luckily, he tends to cooperate a lot.”
In fact, Simmons has become so well known—both for her work as the Freeholder liaison to the County’s Economic Development Office and championing education reform in the County as well as for her always picture perfect appearance—that she doesn’t mind admitting a secret goal. Since the number of dresses she owns is “higher than I can count,” she would like “to go for an entire year without wearing the same dress twice.”
Actually, the down-to-earth Simmons’ admits that her greatest fear is “being too sick to get everything done.” So, the only “real” goal for the stepmother to husband Jeff Silvestri’s two teenagers is “just to live and have a little bit of fun.” Like flying around the world (from Honolulu to Dublin) to catch as many U2 concerts as she can.

She adds that a goal yet to be achieved is “being satisfied with what I have achieved already.” But the irrepressible Simmons can’t resist adding “I don’t know what’s next, but I know there is more.”
Along the way, she’s managing to make her mark in the rough and tumble world of Democratic politics in Gloucester County.

As Freeholder, Simmons is liaison to the Department of Economic Development and Public Works, including oversight of Tourism, Community and Economic Development (Business Retention and Attraction, Gloucester County Chamber of Commerce), Engineering, Planning, Roads, Highways, Fleet Management, Mosquito Control, Buildings and Grounds, the Gloucester County Housing Authority and the Solid Waste Advisory Council.
Her main focus has been “on the integral tie between education and job creation,” and helping to forge a groundbreaking dual enrollment agreement between Gloucester County College and Rowan University that will save local students about $20,000 in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in Gloucester County.

The 12-year resident of Glassboro says “one of the biggest reasons I ran for Freeholder was to be a part of changing the face of higher education in southern New Jersey.

“This region has long been underfunded in this area and the restructuring of higher ed (read that as the Rowan-Rutgers collaboration) will address this. I also wanted to work on strengthening the relationship between GCC and Rowan, helping to make the attainment of bachelor’s degrees and beyond more affordable and accessible for our students. The dual enrollment agreement that gets underway this fall addresses this.”
Part of Simmon’s affinity for improvements to the educational system may come from the fact that all three of her siblings are in the field. Her older sister, Marybeth Kufen, 44, is a kindergarten teacher, and her younger brothers Dan, 42, and Tim, 39 are a collegiate associate athletic director and a high school English teacher, respectively.

Simmons is also one of the moving forces behind a new initiative to promote local businesses over the next fourteen weeks leading up to the busiest shopping weekend of the year—Thanksgiving weekend.
The 14-week campaign will promote the County’s 5,000 local small businesses and ask residents to pledge to shop, dine and spend their money on local services on Saturday, November 24. The program is a partnership with the County Department of Economic Development, the Gloucester County Chamber of Commerce and small business owners and operators.

“By pledging to spend our hard-earned money in local shops and on local dining and services, we all can help to revitalize our downtowns and shopping districts. Keeping it local will help to retain the quality, uniqueness and character of Gloucester County,” says Simmons.

Apropos of nothing in particular, Simmons offers this advice: “Never shop without a coupon!”

The best part of her job is “figuring out what people need and helping them get it” and that dovetails with her business philosophy, which is “to do good AND do well.”

As for a personal motto, Simmons says she got hers from her father, which is to “make a choice to make things happen for yourself rather than sitting back and letting things happen to you.”

Simmons, who is not able to have children of her own, married GCC auto tech instructor Jeff Silvestri, 48, in December 2002 and inherited a ready-made family that includes Mackenzie, 18, who is following in her stepmother’s footsteps at SJU this fall as a biology major, and Anthony, 15, who will be starting his sophomore year at Paul VI.

Simmons followed up her 1991 BA in International Relations at SJU with an MA in Public Relations at Rowan University in 1996 and she’s working on her PhD in education at Capella University in Minneapolis.
Since 2005, she has been the owner of Heather Simmons Communications, a firm that specializes in education and non-profit public relations campaign work.

She began her career at Gloucester County College in 1991, where she served 13 years in public relations, marketing and alumni relations. She was also an adjunct instructor for 12 years, teaching journalism and communications courses. And that’s also where she met her future husband.

Simmons was named 2011 Business Advocate of the Year by the National Association of Women Business Owners-South Jersey Chapter and has been recognized by South Jersey Magazine as a local “Superwoman.” And in 2001, she was named Woman of the Year, Women in Communications by the Gloucester County Commission on Women.

She serves on the Marketing Committee for the United Way of Gloucester County and on the Board of the Greater Glassboro Chamber of Commerce and previously served as a Commissioner with the Gloucester County Library System.

Although she declines an opportunity suggest an epitaph she would hope for, Simmons is willing to offer a self-description.

“I’m not afraid of what comes next,” she says. And who could doubt her?


Pictured: Heather Simmons