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Helen Jenkins Bigham, union leader and activist, dies at 94

REMEMBER THE old fairy tale about the woman who lived in a shoe? She had so many children she didn't know what to do.

REMEMBER THE old fairy tale about the woman who lived in a shoe? She had so many children she didn't know what to do.

Friends and family of Helen Jenkins Bigham often described her that way, with one big difference - Helen knew what to do.

Helen had many children, not only her own, but friends of her children, and the many young people this dedicated and compassionate woman helped in her many years as a community leader.

"She provided love, support and nurturing to all who needed it," her family said.

Helen Bigham, who also was a labor leader, believed to have been one of the first African-American women to head a union, died Dec. 22.

She was 94 and was living in a retirement home in West Philadelphia.

She was born in Garnett, S.C., to Penne Ann Reid and Richmond Jenkins. By the age of 11, both parents were deceased and she was raised by older siblings.

She graduated from Penn Normal Boarding School, on St. Helena Island, S.C.

She came to Philadelphia in June 1938 and in November 1939, married Herman L. Bigham.

She became a cook at Strawberry Mansion Junior High School, and during summer breaks, managed the kitchen at the YMCA camp in Downingtown.

Helen discovered her talent as a union organizer when the AFL-CIO signed up cafeteria workers.

She became president of Local 634 and set about bargaining for better wages and work rules.

"Helen's dedication and strong negotiating skills resulted in major improvements in the work life of her colleagues," her family wrote in an obituary.

She held statewide office in the AFL-CIO, and was on the board of directors of the Negro Trade Union Leadership Congress and the Jewish Labor Congress.

Helen branched out from union work to lend her talents to the outside community.

Among her major accomplishments was the work she did for the People's Emergency Center, of which she eventually became president of the board.

The center, which has provided shelter to homeless adults and children since its founding in 1972, was renting space in a church when Helen signed up in the '80s.

But the church was forced to ask the group to leave.

Helen, by then a member of the PEC board, and Gloria Guard, PEC executive director, set out to find quarters of their own.

They wandered "Moses-style, around West Philadelphia," Daily News' reporter Dan Geringer wrote in 1998.

They found a 30,000-square-foot abandoned luggage factory at 39th and Spring Garden streets.

It was crumbling and in serious disrepair, but the women believed that God would help them find a way to turn it into the shelter they needed.

Whether it was divine intervention or pure luck, a low-income housing developer, Pennrose Properties, came to the rescue, and $2.5 million later the women had their shelter.

Then came the need for a playground, and Helen and Gloria again set to work.

They convinced the city to let them have seven long-abandoned lots on Warren Street near Spring Garden.

Using volunteer labor, a playground emerged from what was basically a dump.

"Helen Bigham . . . warmly welcomed homeless children from the People's Emergency Center and all neighborhood children to the new playground," Geringer wrote.

Helen was an active member of the Reeve Presbyterian Church, where she worked on several committees and served as a member of the Session, the church governing body.

She liked nothing better than getting together with her family, applying her culinary skills to bountiful meals.

Among her favorite times were Friday night sleepovers with her granddaughter, Makina, and watching 76ers games with her grandson, Omari Ramses.

She is survived by two daughters, Kathleen and Babs; a son, Herman, and her two grandchildren.

Services: Were yesterday.