Sister Helen Cole: Changing the game by providing hope

Cherri Gregg
February 12, 2020 - 4:00 am
Sister Helen Cole

Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Sister Helen Cole is known as a gifted servant of the community.

“The one thing that I do the best is be present,” she said.

Her presence is felt most by families of murder victims. Cole’s journey to comforting families during their most tragic moments began in the 1990s. She moved to Camden in 1991 and was immediately struck by the city’s devastating crime, violence and poverty.

“I knew that we could not continue to live there if we didn’t do something to change things,” she recalled. “What I did not know is that inside me was an activist and advocate.”

Four years later, her inner activist was awakened, when a 13-year-old named Shailine Seguinot went missing. The girl’s mother asked Cole to help hang missing child posters. Three days later, her body was found. She had been raped and murdered. 

Cole said that changed her own life forever.

“From that day on, I have companioned families of murder victims,” she explained.

Families of murder victims kept showing up and requesting her help, so she went back to school and became a social worker, taking additional classes on grief counseling. As her skills and talents melded together, it allowed her to align herself publicly and privately with murder victims. 

She supported families through counseling, home visits or court hearings. 

“I don’t go looking for the families,” she noted, “but somehow we find each other. I’m with people that need somebody, and I am privileged to be able to share with them their tragedy.”

Cole is a founder of Guadalupe Family Services, which was incorporated in 1995. Located on State Street in North Camden, the organization works to meet the complex needs of the community, comprised mostly of African-Americans and Latinos. Over the past 25 years, social workers, volunteers and counselors have reached out to the community and helped transform that area of the city. Their methods have varied — from marches and prayer vigils to diaper banks and Christmas gift giveaways — whatever is needed to help the community they reside in.

“I do a lot of social justice work,” Cole added. During one protest at City Hall, she said a police officer once told her she was very different from the nuns he had previously seen.

“(He) looked at me and said, ‘What happened to nuns who sat in chapel praying on their knees?’ I said, ‘Oh no, I want to be like you, I want to serve.’ I didn't think about it — all I wanted to do was to help people, and at that time, what we needed to do to help people was to push City Hall.”

As one of seven kids born into an Irish Catholic family in Wynnefield, with a Philadelphia cop for a father, Cole said she wanted to become a nun since childhood. In second grade, she met the sisters at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School, who she believed were living happy, active lives.

She knew she was called.

“People look at sisters and think ‘they pray,’ ” Cole said, “but as Sisters of Saint Joseph, we are called to go where the people are, where the need is.”

Cole works to fight oppression, hoping to empower everyone she meets to be creative and true to themselves. In recent years, as community policing has helped decrease crime and homicide rates in Camden, Cole’s work with families of murder victims has lessened. So her organization shifted gears.

Two years ago, Guadalupe Family Services launched CASA — Camden Adolescents Striving for Achievement for kids in high school. Every day after school, dozens of kids come for tutoring, career talks, or trips.

Camden Adolescents Striving for Achievement
Provided by Guadalupe Family Services

Camden Adolescents Striving for Achievement (CASA) summer camp program
Provided by Guadalupe Family Services

“Teenagers give me life,” Cole smiled.

Cole’s efforts throughout Camden’s 9 square miles has benefited thousands over the years, earning her the humble nickname “Mother Teresa of Camden.” 

“If I am Mother Teresa, I am not alone,” she chuckled about the moniker. “I have an army behind me.”

And that army is changing the game by offering the community hope.

“It’s a gift I’ve been given, and I want to share it,” she said.

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Gamechangers is led by KYW Newsradio's community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg. It recognizes 10 individuals or organizations that are making a positive impact on communities of color. 

For a full list of 2020’s Gamechangers, check back here. One honoree will be announced each weekday between Feb. 10 and 21. The awards ceremony takes place on Feb. 27 at The Met Philadelphia.