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Meet the New Heroes
Mimi Silbert

Photo: Actual Films

Mimi Silbert

Project: Delancey Street Foundation

Location: San Francisco, Calif. U.S.A.

In 1971 Mimi Silbert founded Delancey Street with four residents, a thousand dollar loan and a dream. She envisioned a place where substance abusers, former felons and others who had hit bottom would, through their own efforts, be able to turn their lives around.

Silbert has since built an empire grossing 20 million dollars a year with locations in New York, New Mexico, North Carolina and Los Angeles. She has never accepted a single penny of government funds.

Since those early days in a single house, Mimi Silbert has empowered more than 14,000 people to lead crime-free, drug-free lives in mainstream society. They have acquired skills, they attend college and they are part of the workforce.

Silbert says she has spent her career cultivating a "university of the streets." She calls it a "Harvard for losers," where the students are former pimps, prostitutes, junkies, drug dealers and armed robbers.

Her program's name comes from Silbert's own past. Delancey Street is a place on Manhattan's lower east side where immigrants like her parents came to make a new life for themselves.

What Does the Delancey Street Foundation Do?

The Delancey Street Foundation is a residential education center where drug addicts, criminals and the homeless learn to lead productive, crime-free lives. It has been called the most successful rehabilitation project in the United States.

The foundation runs at no cost to the taxpayer or client. They earn revenue by operating more than 20 businesses, including the Delancey Street Restaurant and Café and the Delancey Street Moving Company. These "training schools" not only generate income, they teach residents marketable skills and inculcate in them habits of self-control and self-discipline.

Each resident spends up to four years at the facility and must pass equivalency exams to obtain a high school diploma in order to graduate. They also need to line up a job and a place to live. Silbert likes to see each of her students graduate with three marketable skills to ensure their job success.

Silbert reports that 65 percent of the organization's operating costs are paid for by revenue from its businesses. She originally rejected foundation money, fearing it would deter from the participants' feeling that their survival depended on the success of the businesses. Today, the organization receives more than ten million dollars from private donations every year.

Silbert and Delancey Street are always facing new challenges. Today, offenders are often third-generation criminals. Silbert used to tell clients that their parents wanted a better life for them. Since participants' parents are often criminals as well, the draw to go back to the streets can be strong. Fortunately, after more than 30 years, Mimi Silbert isn't about to give up.