Set a timeline of goals. Write out what you want to do and research what is the best way to achieve those goals. Don’t be afraid to change plans if your expectations weren’t met. I wanted to finish my masters but ran out of scholarship so instead I went to tryout for the WNBA because I needed a work permit. Stay connected to your roots and culture. It’s the first home you know. Do everything legally if possible so you won’t have to keep looking over your back. Find a community of your peers from home. Use their resources to help guide you and for networking.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Simone Edwards, a pioneer player of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) with the New York Liberty.
She moved on to play with the newly formed Seattle Storm and retired after six seasons with the team. At the time of retirement, she was the longest standing member from the original Storm roster, and also the team’s all-time leader in games played, rebounds, and minutes played. She was the first Caribbean (Jamaican) player to play in the league. Edwards is also a member of the inaugural Seattle Storm team. She won a WNBA championship with the Storm in 2004.
She is also a member of the Storm’s All-Decade Team. In an archived article on the Seattle Storm website entitled ‘Where Are They Now?‘ Edwards is lauded as perpetual fan favorite while with the team.
High praise for someone who was only introduced to the sport while a senior in high school in a country not known for its basketball exploits or achievements, and especially not among females. 6’4” Edwards, former center of the Storm, was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. Her involvement with basketball was a chance encounter. While competing for her high school in the 100-meter event at the national high school girl’s championship she was approached by two strangers who introduced themselves as basketball coaches. She was then offered a basketball scholarship to the USA, an offer based solely on her height and athletic abilities.
Edwards first came to prominence on the court while playing for Seminole State College in Oklahoma, leading the team to an unprecedented, undefeated conference record, which earned them a Top-10 ranking. While there, she was the recipient of several collegiate sports awards and became the First Kodak All-American player in that school’s history. She improved on her junior college success by becoming team co-captain at the University of Iowa under the watchful eye of legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer.
Upon graduating, Edwards was signed to the WNBA’s New York Liberty during the league’s 1997, the league’s inaugural season. She came to international prominence while playing overseas leading several teams to championships trophies. In 2000, she signed with the Seattle Storm, ultimately becoming a WNBA champion in 2004. She retired from the league in 2006. Thereafter, Edwards was selected to represent her home country, Jamaica at 2006 Caribbean Basketball Confederation Championships, winning the country’s first-ever medal. And it was gold. She joined Radford University as an assistant to Head Coach Jeri Porter in 2007–08, then followed Porter to George Mason University.
In 2014, she returned to the team as head coach, winning yet another gold medal at the championship.
Simone has consistently utilized her platform as a professional athlete to make a positive impact on the lives of others. While with the Storm, she founded the Simone4Children Organization with the focus of giving back to the local community and to support her charitable efforts in Jamaica. This led to her partnering with local and international entities, such as Food for the Poor, which aided in starting a basic school and after-care program facility in the volatile Heritage/August Town community where she grew up. In January of this year, she officially opened a learning center there. The after-school program is staffed by volunteer tutors, who aid with homework and exam-preparation. To date there are nearly 200 students enrolled.
She also the founded the Anti-Bully Project which champions the fight against bullying. She participates in numerous events nationally to advocate for this cause.
Simone co-founded Diverse Writers Room, a development company that validates diverse writers by “challenging perception through television and film,” involving women, people of color, elderly and LGBTQ characters. She is also a highly sought-after motivational speaker who shares her incredible personal stories of success, failure, and determination.
Her memoir, UNSTOPPABLE, reveals the harsh realities of growing up poor in a gang-infested village and how she found the inner strength to maintain hope in the face of adversity. The book gives readers insight into her collegiate and professional basketball experiences, as well as her international career, while revealing obstacles and triumphs she experienced on her journey from taunted teenager to internationally prominent sports figure. Unstoppable is raw, passionate, and powerful, yet filled with the infectious humor and exuberant personality for which she is known. It is a captivating portrait of one woman’s relentless pursuit of a dream and her unwavering determination not to allow her circumstances to dictate her future.
In 2017, the Government of Jamaica awarded Edwards with the Order of Distinction (OD) which is bestowed on citizens of Jamaica who have rendered outstanding and important service to Jamaica in their respective field.
Recently Edwards was named coordinator of the national youth basketball program by the sport’s national federation, the Jamaica Basketball Association (JABA), and is now directly responsible for developing strategies and plans to ensure Jamaica consistently fields youth level teams in regional competitions. When asked about what has driven her, and still motivates her, her spontaneous response was “I achieved my dream working hard in preparation for the opportunity when it came. My hope is to inspire others to achieve and fulfill their dreams as well.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us Simone! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Jamaica, an island known for its beauty, music and world class track athletes across many sports. I grew up in a small impoverished crime infested community in St. Andrew called Gold Smith Villa, also called Angola or Gola. It earned its nickname because of it similarity to the African state of Angola during the country’s bloody civil war when thousands were massacred. Such was the fear that gripped my community because of the many atrocities. Gunmen roamed freely and during the night the sound of gunfire reverberated throughout the community. It was not unusual for children to collect the spent bullet shells the following day. Despite all the violence, chaos and danger, I loved my childhood. To me this was simply “home.”
I loved how the stars comes out at nights with no interference from our one streetlight. I loved how there were fruit trees in every yard, and everyone knew each other. I loved the way the green hills met the blue sky, and goats walked the streets freely during the days, then found their own way home at nights. My next-door neighbor would play his music every weekend so the whole village could hear and enjoy. He would mount his huge speakers outside his gate, blasting the music from morning till night, which annoyed the ‘neck’ out of my mother.
Most times without electricity, we frequently cooked, washed and ironed using the coal stove and coal iron during this time. It was a simple life but fun as my brothers and our friends and I would walk sometimes for miles to catch water. We would pick mangoes and other fruits along the way. It was challenging but I still had more than many of my friends. I was a happy child although much taller than the average child at my age, which was the reason I was bullied.
I was an amazing athlete which brought me popularity on sports day, and I stayed undefeated as a sprinter all the way through high school.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
Growing up poor, I knew I wanted more so that I could help my mother. I had heard of athletes going on scholarships to the USA and I wanted the opportunity for myself as my mother could ill afford the cost of sending me and my three older brothers to school. Somehow, she managed without us missing a day. My mother worked hard to provide for us, working on the local bus, selling baked goods from home, dress making, housekeeping and other menial jobs in order to make ends meet.
My mom is my hero.
When those two strangers walked up to me offering a Basketball scholarship without me actually knowing the game, I seized the opportunity. I just said yes.
All that was required was that I learned in one year. I ran home to tell my mother who at the time was hoping I would get a track scholarship. She had never seen me win a trophy. She was always working but my dad, who didn’t live with us, would show up at every track meet. He was a police officer who works in the transportation department, and therefore was able to come see me perform. He was my biggest cheerleader as he ran along the sideline egging me on to run faster because someone was gaining on me.
So, basketball was the platform that offered me a way out, and the opportunity to get a higher education so that I could help my mom and to break the cycle of abject poverty to which we were accustomed. Incidentally, it also gave me the opportunity to fly my mother to Europe to watch me play for the very first time, something she was never able to do because she was always working.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
After learning basketball for a year, I accepted a scholarship to Seminole State College in Oklahoma. I arrived in the USA with a suitcase of warm clothes and 100 dollars which was to serve me while I was away. It wasn’t easy for my family to come up with that 100 dollars. It was the most money I have ever had in my life.
I devised a plan. I would pick mangoes and other fruits when I was hungry and buy a quarter of a bread with butter like I did in my village. That would help me save, I though. When I got to Oklahoma, I didn’t see any fruit trees along the road way or yards close by. There were no shops within miles and definitely none that sold a quarter of a bread with butter. I hardly saw anyone that looked like me. I saw Indians, which was amazing to me because their features were just like those I used to see my black and white tv back home. I only knew of them through movies where they always seemed to be the bad guys. Then there were the cowboys and gals in their hats and boots, but not on horses. Where were those beautiful horses they showed on tv? I lived in the dorm on campus, and there was nothing else in close range. I had a Japanese next-door neighbor who was our team manager, and who became one of my dearest friends. I guess we both felt out of place so we just gravitated towards each other. She was half my size, and people would stare at us when we walked together. We didn’t care.
I didn’t have a car, there were no buses and the cafeteria was closed on the weekends. I was starving on the weekends. One night I just grabbed my suitcase and started walking in the middle of the night heading home to Jamaica. I had no idea where those roads lead to. All I knew was that I never starved in Jamaica. My teammates called my coach and he came all sleepy-eyed and a bit upset. After I explained what I was going through, he made arrangements with the cafeteria manager to ensure that I was never out of food again.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
When I met Bonnie Ritchie my life change. She is the sweetest lady with that a Oklahoma accent. She and her husband Herman, who I called Hermie, kind of adopted me. They showed me so much love. They drove to every away game to support me. During the holidays when I was unable to go home, Bonnie made me the best cakes and meals. Hermie would give me the warmest hugs, and after every game they would wait for me like the other players’ family did. That was special. I played hard to make them proud of me.
I met Devon Balfour during basketball event. We became teammates and bonded as sisters almost instantaneously. She introduced me to get family who also adopted me, and I spent weekends with them. They never made me feel unwelcome or like an outsider.
Niki, my teammate, taught me country music and dances. I could do the achy freaky dance and sing a whole Teva or Garth Brooks song with a good fake country accent.
I can’t say enough about my coach Brad Walck who believed in me from day one and is simply a great guy. Last but not least, my school guidance counselor Tracy, who is one of the kindest and sweetest person I know. She helped prepare me for the next step.
I had a village, not just a singular support system.
So how are things going today?
I am glad to say I made history by becoming the first Jamaican in the WNBA. I won a WNBA championship with the Seattle Storm, and have started a nonprofit organization called Simone4children. I have also started a girls’ empowerment movement in Jamaica called Girls Untapped. Girls Untapped has partnered with the biggest and most amazing mentorship program for girls in the US called Generation WOW. I am presently the director of the national basketball for youth, both male and female, in Jamaica. National honors were bestowed upon me in by my government. I was awarded the Order of Distinction OD. I have started a basketball academy to help and motivate underserved children in my country to learn the game of basketball as a vehicle to get scholarship, learn communication skills, teamwork and how to be successful on and off the court. Who knows, they could one day become even more successful than Simone Edwards. The thought of it keeps me motivated.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am passionate about the work I am doing as my nonprofit endeavors have, to date, affected many lives in a positive way. I am blessed with a platform which has so far help me to bring positivity to the lives of the most vulnerable.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
I would change the excessive high fees. I would change the long wait for approval once you are filed for. Then I would address the humiliating way some immigration speaks to applicants who are only seeking to seize opportunities this great country offers to enhance or better their lives.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
Goals: Set a timeline of goals. Write out what you want to do and research what is the best way to achieve those goals. Don’t be afraid to change plans if your expectations weren’t met. I wanted to finish my masters but ran out of scholarship so instead I went to tryout for the WNBA because I needed a work permit. Stay connected to your roots and culture. It’s the first home you know. Do everything legally if possible so you won’t have to keep looking over your back. Find a community of your peers from home. Use their resources to help guide you and for networking.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- The issue of the racial disparity is finally out in the open and being addressed by law makers.
- The recent level of protest domestically and internationally demonstrate that people are more socially active and are holding their elected officials accountable.
- Women are finally being recognized as a driving force in the political arena.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I would love to sit with Oprah or Ellen DeGeneres or, for that matter, anyone who will afford me the platform to bring international attention to my experiences as mentioned in my memoir UNSTOPPABLE as a motivating tool through film. Or someone willing to support my causes. I want to change as many lives as possible but know I need help in doing so. I achieved my dream by working hard preparing for the opportunity when it came. My hope is to inspire others to achieve their dream as well.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
IG and FB: @jamhurricane
FB: S4C Basketball Academy
FB: Girls Untapped
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!