It was around midnight on Feb. 3 when Rhonda Willingham exited her car.
She was heading to her mother’s house in West Philly when two young men ran up and knocked her down. Then they took her purse and tote bag. The founder of the Center City nonprofit MenzFit didn’t get a good look before the two disappeared into the darkness.
“They came out of nowhere,” Willingham recalled, adding that she wound up with a bruised eye and a swollen lip along with other cuts and scrapes. “One of them ... had like a gray hoodie on, but I couldn’t really make out the face.”
It was a traumatizing experience for the 51-year-old crusader. Not only did those men take her purse. They robbed her of something really precious — her sense of personal security.
As someone who’s been attacked, I know how these kind of incidents can affect your psyche. You’re never quite the same again. You look over your shoulder more. You scan faces in crowds, looking to recognize your assailant.
“I’m taking Lyft a little bit more," Willingham said. "I’m just a little fearful, even in the daytime. I’m just like real conscious of my surroundings. It’s scary. They were clearly out just to rob somebody.”
What’s galling is that if the robbers had only contacted Willingham’s Center City office hours earlier, they could have gotten so much more than the $7 they took from her that night.
As the head of MenzFit, Willingham is in a position to have helped them live different lives. They wouldn’t be hanging around robbing people.
Helping men is what the Philly native does.
Since 2001, her nonprofit has collected thousands of suits, belts, and other business attire that it distributes to job seekers to wear to interviews, and on the job.
On Wednesday, the nonprofit will present inmates at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix who have completed a MenzFit job-training program with free grooming kits filled with a 30-day supply of personal hygiene products. The men also will get business suits to wear upon their release.
Inside her Walnut Street office, Willingham operates an upscale men’s “store” where unemployed males can be outfitted in professional clothing for free. Willingham, who is divorced, was volunteering as an image consultant for Suited for Change in Washington, D.C., that helps women outfit themselves for the workplace when she got the idea to start MenzFit in her hometown.
I stopped by Monday afternoon and watched as she worked with Raymond Tuthill, who had recently been released from SCI Phoenix. I interviewed him as he picked out ties and was suited up in a sharp charcoal-gray pinstripe.
By the time Willingham was finished with him, Tuthill looked more like a professional banker than an applicant looking for work in the construction industry. He smiled broadly and gave Willingham a huge hug before leaving with a bag of clothes.
She’s doing God’s work. That’s why the thought of her being roughed up the way she was earlier this month is so infuriating. Nobody deserves that, least of all someone like her. Willingham started MenzFit after spending six years working for the U.S. Department of Labor during the Clinton administration.
We all should feel outraged about living and working in a city where thieves think nothing of knocking women around — or worse — to steal from them.
This time around it was Willingham.
Last month, it was a 40-year-old woman in the 1600 block of South Broad Street who was robbed by three female assailants. Philadelphia police say that the attack, around 9 p.m. on Jan. 16, lasted for more than a minute as the robbers repeatedly punched and kicked her as they tried to wrest a handbag from her hands. The whole thing was captured on surveillance video that was aired on local news stations.
I understand that in a city where a pregnant mother got killed last week along with her unborn baby, getting mugged is mild in comparison.
But these kind of petty crimes can have a troubling ripple effect because they could discourage good people like Willingham from doing what they do. And we can’t afford to be without these bright spots of light.