Jerry And Ella Simons: The Gift Of Hope

“What you do has far greater impact than what you say.” – Steven Covey

Jerry and Ella Simons have spent their lives impacting others and offering the ‘Gift of Hope’ from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the high Andes of Peru and everywhere in between, including the Utah Crater in our beloved Midway. Along the way, they have discovered how to not only balance family, work, and adventure but to serve others and celebrate lives with great meaning. One aspiration, in particular, has led them to do work that changes lives daily. Ella vividly remembers years ago watching the movie Schindler’s List and, together with Jerry, making the goal of impacting 1 Million lives. Let’s take a deep dive into the life of these two humble, but incredible people.

The Early Years

Jerry and Ella’s story starts out somewhat ordinary. Jerry was born in Fairview, UT, but grew up in San Bernardino, CA. Jerry’s father passed away when he was eight years old, and he shares how blessed he has been to have good role models throughout his formative years. He recalls a specific life-changing experience he had when he was 11 years old. His scoutmaster was a plumber and requested that Jerry help him with a project replacing an old water heater for a widow they went to church with. There was one catch. They were going to perform the act in secret, and Jerry was to tell no one. Initially, Jerry thought that was strange because they were doing something neat, and he wanted to talk about it. However, on Sunday, when the widow came to church and told everyone how an anonymous person had installed a new water heater just for her, a seed was planted. Jerry knew he wanted to continue doing secret acts of service. This lesson about kindness stuck with him and has highly impacted the person he has become.

Ella was born in Preston, Idaho. As a young teenager, Ella traveled to San Bernardino to help her sister with her new baby. She and Jerry met at a celebration in the San Bernardino Valley when Jerry was 15, and Ella was 13. Ella’s family was called on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and spent three years in New Zealand and Samoa. Upon their return to the States, Ella ended up in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she finished her Senior year of high school and then attended beauty school. Jerry was attending Brigham Young University in Provo, and the two began dating. Soon after, Jerry and Ella were married and made California their home. Jerry attended San Jose State, and Ella got her cosmetology licensing for both Utah and California.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from San Jose State, Jerry taught high school and was a professor at Fullerton Junior College. Jerry spent 12 ½ years in college, receiving a master’s degree from CSU, Long Beach, and then receiving his doctorate of electrical engineering from Texas A&M. After receiving his doctorate, they returned to California, where Jerry taught electronics at San Diego State University. “I could make more money in the summer in electronics than I could at the University. We had six children, so I started my own business making chips,” says Jerry. The business was a success. After a few years, Jerry was approached by Exxon Oil and sold his computer chip business to them with a no-compete contract in 1984. The sale of this business meant retirement from Silicon Valley and financial freedom for the Simons family.

The sale also gave Jerry and Ella the time and resources they needed to start doing more humanitarian work. “We had been doing some work on and off, humanitarian work, where we could, but we had the philosophy, we want to do the work without being seen. […] We tried to do things behind the scenes.” Jerry and Ella started looking for organizations they wanted to be involved with and were discouraged to find some that weren’t transparent about where personal contributions were going and objected to sharing that information. Jerry says, “We decided if we did something on the humanitarian level, we wanted to do it where we had full control. If somebody gave us ten dollars as a donation to buy a flock of chickens for a poor family, that’s where the money would go.” In 1967, Jerry and Ella founded the Simons Says Foundation. As their foundation grew, the Simons were uncomfortable with the personal attention using their names garnered, and so they became Hope Projects. In 1999 Hope Projects began to focus much of their efforts on the people of the Andes with a, “[…] determination to help those who are willing to help themselves […] and to change hundreds of thousands of lives in the High Andes villages.” Why the Andes? Well, that story begins with a treasure hunt.

Diving for Treasure

Although their story began as ordinary, it quickly became extraordinary. During the early 1960s, while living in California, Jerry was introduced to scuba diving. Eight years later, he discovered a new obsession – Spanish gold diving. Jerry shares, “There were 200,000 ships that went down, most of them carrying treasure from South America to Spain starting in the 1500s and going clear to the early 1900s.” The ships would hit the breakwater, and the coral reef would tear a hole or holes in the ship, and they would sink. Traditionally, the Spanish would light the top of the ship on fire or cut it off until nothing was visible above the water. Then they would carefully map the position of the ship and its location with the stars so they could eventually return and find it. With 200,000 vessels facing the same destiny, many were left in the ocean with treasure aboard that the Spanish never reclaimed.

With his metal detector in hand and his scuba mastery, he dove down and found lost treasure.

Jerry discovered records that listed locations and what was aboard these sunken ships in Seville, Spain, and became proficient at finding the wreckage sites. Many times most of the wood had rotted away, and all that was left of the ship was a pile of rocks that at one time balanced the ballast. But Jerry knew there was also a great chance of finding gold near those piles. With his metal detector in hand and his scuba mastery, he dove down and found lost treasure. He says, “We were really successful in finding stuff.” Over the years, Jerry has found coins from the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s. Now, laws and regulations make it more difficult to find and keep the treasure, but when Jerry first got into it, it was finders’ keepers. Jerry’s favorite find was after a hurricane in Key West, Florida. The seaplane he was on landed out in the ocean. Jerry found himself in the midst of lots of jellyfish, and as he looked down on the ocean floor, he “[…] saw three sparkling gold coins. All three of them were visibly dated.” It was a rare find as there was nothing else anywhere close by. During the 1600s and 1700s, one gold coin could purchase three ships and all the supplies needed. Today, these gold coins can be worth $20,000 if the date is visible, making them ten times more valuable than undated coins.

Jerry had a desire to travel to where these coins originated. His travels took him to the high Andes of Peru. The gold they were diving for initially belonged to the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs, but the Spanish came to South America greedy and lustful and wrongfully deemed the lives of these indigenous people as having no value and being without souls. The Spanish killed 9 million people, chasing the remainder either into the high Andes or into the dangerous Amazon to survive. Many of the coins Jerry found were from Lima, Peru. Jerry was also interested in finding coins he didn’t have to dive for. Jerry explains, “While visiting the Amazon basin and the high Andes of Peru in 1993, I wanted to see if there were any museums with Spanish gold, silver, or treasure. There sadly was very little other than the gold museum in Lima, Peru, none of which was for sale.”

Jerry and Ella traveled to Cusco and Lima with no success finding coins, but they did have success in finding something of far more value. A place that was compatible with the type of humanitarian work they wanted to do. They found that the people of the Andes were extremely generous, humble, and hard-working. They saw that when the people were finished harvesting their own crops, they went and helped their neighbors. When a young couple got married, the community came together to build them an adobe shack. Jerry proposed a plan to their tour guide, Cesar, who was fluent in English, Spanish, and the Quechua language spoken in the small villages of the Andes. Jerry said he could provide building materials to help the people there if they were willing to put in the labor to enhance their communities. Jerry shares, “For the next six months, Cesar and the villagers worked hard and completed a school in half the projected time and at half of the estimated cost.”

Hope Projects and the High Andes

In the last 25 years, with their personal funds and donors’ funds amounting to 8.3 Million dollars, the Simons have provided assistance to 650,000 individuals. They have supplied 175 villages with building materials for greenhouses, classrooms, clean water systems and reservoirs, medical clinics, roof tile and concrete block factories, guinea pig farms, orphanages, and much more. The Minister of Education in Peru came from one of these small villages and has promised to provide a paid, permanent teacher for every school Hope Projects completes. This work isn’t just improving lives; it’s saving lives. Jerry explains that once a village has added all of the enhancements that are offered, the death rate goes down by 80%. That’s huge! That is life-changing! It is humbling to know that giving others the ability to have the things we take for granted every day, like clean water, food sources, medical services, and education, saves their lives.

The Simons are unique in their humanitarian efforts: “Our philosophy is we don’t give away anything. We’ll provide building materials for schools, etc.” The villagers provide all of the labor. Jerry says, “Our formula for success is, ‘Do you want to do work? If you want to do work, we will help you.” They let the villagers perform the work their way. “We don’t go with our footprint,” Ella shares. Jerry and Ella value the skills and knowledge that the people already have. They have loved learning from the incredible people who live in the Andes. Ella says, “They are very kind people, and they don’t have grudges. […] They love each other. They work together well. They’re really hard workers. […] The whole family’s out there working.” People find it hard to understand the Simons’ incentive in all of this. But Jerry explains, “They [the people Hope Projects helps] say this, and it hits us to the core, ‘God sent you. You are the answer to our prayers.’ That touches my heart. That’s the reward we get.”

“Our formula for success is, ‘Do you want to do work? If you want to do work, we will help you.”

Diving Into Midway

The Simons’ humanitarian service projects, treasure hunting, and scuba diving are all very rewarding. But it was scuba diving that eventually brought the family to Midway, Utah.

In the early 1990s, Ella and Jerry purchased a scuba shop in Orem. They trained and certified people in scuba diving but were discouraged that there weren’t any great options for scuba certification nearby. Jerry heard about a place referred to as the Hot Pot Dome in Midway. The Sheriff’s Department had been doing some emergency rescue training, rappelling down to the hot spring by way of the 28-foot hole at the top of the large crater. He decided to check it out. Jerry says, “I took a wench and lowered my youngest son [he jokingly adds ‘he was expendable’ under his breath] down to look it over.” His son found six inches of moss on top of the water, but when he cleared it away, he discovered that the water was warm and clear and a prime location for scuba certification.

Jerry’s son, Craig Simons, who is now the manager of the Utah Crater, chuckles while remembering watching his brother being lowered down through the hole. Craig shares, “The final step in becoming certified was to complete a dive in 60+ feet deep water. We would always go out to a geothermal lake on the Utah-Nevada border. It’s in the middle of nowhere and is a difficult and not enjoyable drive to get there. When we found out about the crater, that was a treat because it was only 25 miles away, and the water was warm.” It was the perfect solution. However, the only way in was to rappel down. Craig explains, “Up until 1890, the crater was full of water to the top. The water would flow over the top, and the accumulation or depositing of the minerals is what created the unique dome.” In 1890 a hole was drilled through the rock, allowing water to flow out and swimmers to come in. Craig shares that the idea of accessible, warm, deep water was too good for his father to pass up. In 1994 Jerry Simons had an idea — dynamite a hole in the side of the crater to grant accessibility to visitors. With the help of some digital imaging, they decided on the best point of entry and, in Jerry’s words, “[…] with a good idea and 15 tons of dynamite,” they created an entrance to the crater, and the rest is history. Craig shares, “We’ve been a resident at the Homestead property ever since.”

“With a good idea and 15 tons of dynamite” they created an entrance to the crater.

The crater opened in 1995 and celebrated its 1 Millionth customer in July 2021! With the help of the Simons family, today, The Utah Crater serves people from all over the world. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Utah. Ella remembers, “One day, we counted 29 different license plates in the parking lot.” At a continuously balmy 96 degrees, the crater is the only warm scuba destination in the continental United States. The unique hot pot has also ‘starred’ in a few productions. Craig explains, “We’ve had music videos shot here. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have both filmed episodes here, and a portion of the movie 127 Hours was also filmed at the crater.” No need to worry if you aren’t a rock star or a movie star. You’re still invited to come and experience a variety of activities. You can take a simple tour and learn more about the history, geology, and archaeology, or you can sit back, relax, and soak in the mineral water. Take a swim, go snorkeling, or schedule a Scuba Experience. And, of course, you can get scuba certified. The crater has no caverns or tunnels to explore, but at 65 feet deep and 400 feet at the base, the Utah Crater has plenty of space to discover!

One thing that most people don’t know about the crater is its strong ties to the Simons Says Foundation Hope Projects. A large portion of the proceeds from the crater provides help and support for the indigenous people of the Andes in Peru. Craig shares that this work has been a very special part of the crater for him and his family. As I write this article, Jerry and Ella are back in Peru for the next several months. The Simons Family’s lives have been anything but ordinary! Ella and Jerry have received 18 presidential awards from the country of Peru and, if you remember their goal of impacting 1 Million lives . . . they’re more than halfway to meeting that — and that’s just in Peru! If we zoom out from the Andes and consider the impact they’ve had here in Wasatch County and elsewhere — Ella and Jerry have not only met their goal they’ve reached far beyond. I can’t help but think that the gold taken from the Quechua people of the Andes is finally being restored in the most beautiful way possible.

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