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Kevin Riordan: Her many years of helping Camden

Fund-raiser next week will benefit Sister Helen Cole's summer day camp for 35 children.

Sister Helen Cole in her office at Guadalupe Family Services. She has been helping children and families in Camden for nearly 20 years. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Sister Helen Cole in her office at Guadalupe Family Services. She has been helping children and families in Camden for nearly 20 years. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)Read more

Sister Helen Cole, who knows North Camden as well as anyone, sees the neighborhood and city through clear blue eyes.

"It's tragic," says the 52-year-old Catholic nun, who since the mid-1990s has counseled families of murder victims citywide. "So many sad things happen here."

But good things happen, too, such as the summer day camp that Cole's agency, Guadalupe Family Services, offers to 35 North Camden kids.

This five-week program for boys and girls ages 8 to 12 will be the principal beneficiary of a fund-raiser next Thursday. More about that in a moment.

For now, let's just say Guadalupe, which also distributes diapers, provides antiviolence education, and holds a yearly vigil in remembrance of Camden's homicide victims, deserves plenty of support. So does the program's director, whom I've known and admired for nearly 20 years.

"If people were coming here and I had nothing to give them, I would be burned out. It would be very hard to turn people away," says Cole, a Philly cop's daughter who became a Sister of St. Joseph in 1979.

In 1991, Cole began working in North Camden as a second-grade teacher. She then earned a master's degree in social work from St. Joseph's University and founded Guadalupe in 1995.

"The truth is that when people come here, I can help them," adds Cole, whose high-octane laugh shows no signs of burnout. "But I don't just give out stuff free. Sometimes when you do that, it isn't appreciated. Over the years I've learned this."

From her second-floor office in a grand old house on State Street, you can sense summer coming to North Camden. Surges of traffic noise and bursts of English and Spanish rise from the pavement in a haze of heat.

This tough old neighborhood is changing: Riverfront Prison is rubble (good riddance), and Holy Name Church will consolidate with the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at summer's end.

But Holy Name School is alive and well, as is Guadalupe - although the modest State Street convent where Cole lived until recently is closed.

"I wish I could still live here," says Cole, who now resides at Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill. "Sometimes when I drive in there are people on the porch waiting for me."

That kind of never-ending need inspired a group of women to organize an annual fund-raiser for Guadalupe in 2008. This year's event, "Crossing the River for a Cause," will be hosted by Regina Bartler at her Philadelphia home.

"Sister Helen gets right to the source. She's hands on, in the streets," Bartler says.

Adds Haddonfield resident Nancy Jerome: "We're helping raise money so Sister Helen can do what she does."

Cole's work with families of murder victims began in 1995, when she was a newly minted social worker. A North Camden 13-year-old named Shaline Seguinot disappeared; she was later found, raped and fatally stabbed, near Pyne Poynt Middle School.

"I can still see myself knocking on the door of Shaline's house," Cole recalls. "Her mother was upstairs, and I sat on the floor and talked to her."

Cole "steps in when most people kind of step away," says Camden County Surrogate Pat Jones, another longtime supporter.

She also counseled Shaline's friends, one of whom would lose her own daughter in a horrific murder-suicide arson in the Northgate I high-rise last year. Again, Cole was there.

"I can do my job better when I'm not constantly thinking, 'What am I going to do about money?' " says Cole, who hopes "Crossing the River" will raise $20,000 to cover the day camp's cost.

Parents are asked to contribute $80, and St. Joseph's University provides a bus, a driver, and use of the campus pool.

"Our goal is to get the kids out of the city to see other places," says Cole, citing trips to the Philadelphia Zoo and elsewhere.

She particularly remembers the kids returning from a visit to a Medford farm last summer.

"They were carrying bags of peaches and ears of corn that they had picked," Cole says. "They were so ecstatic.

"It was just simple joy. That's what I want these kids to have. The simple experience of just being happy."