For more than two decades, Sister Helen Cole has tried to make a difference in Camden's neighborhoods, counseling murder victims and families devastated by violence in the city.

Her work was recognized in Philadelphia on Friday by the FBI, which announced the award to Guadalupe Family Services, a nonprofit agency Cole started in 1995, of its Director's Community Leadership Award. Cole and her team were honored in a ceremony at the William J. Green Federal Building.

Philadelphia Special Agent in Charge Michael Harpster said Cole was selected because of efforts by her organization to educate Camden's young people and curb violence. The city, once labeled one of the most dangerous places in the country, has recently seen a decrease in violence.

Sister Helen Cole
MELANIE BURNEY
Sister Helen Cole

“It’s amazing what happens when we sit with families, sit with students, sit with somebody really distraught, and we can say to them, ‘You’re going to get through this. We’re going to help you,’” Cole said. “The transformation that we have seen gives us so much energy.”

A member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Cole was assigned to Holy Name School in North Camden and later became a licensed clinical social worker. She founded Guadalupe and primarily works with families of murder victims, providing grief counseling. She holds a vigil at the end of every year to honor the city's homicide victims, lighting one candle each hour for each person. She started the vigil in 1995, a violent year in Camden when 58 people were killed.

Candles burned at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in 2011 for Anjanea Williams, who was shot and killed while waiting outside a deli, and Jeremiah Johnson of Sicklerville, who was killed on Mount Ephraim Avenue in Camden.
TOM GRALISH
Candles burned at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in 2011 for Anjanea Williams, who was shot and killed while waiting outside a deli, and Jeremiah Johnson of Sicklerville, who was killed on Mount Ephraim Avenue in Camden.

Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson, who attended Friday's presentation along with a half-dozen officers, said Cole and her team have helped police efforts by offering counseling and healing to traumatized residents. The county force took over patrols in Camden in 2013.

"How I describe Sister Helen is, she is the Mother Teresa of Camden," Thomson said.

Cole and her staff will receive the award next month in Washington. The FBI will recognize honorees from its 56 field offices around the country that selected a person or group to receive a Director's Community Leadership Award.