Women of Excellence – Sister Helen Cole

Inspiration – Sister Helen Cole

In 1991, Sister Helen Cole was sent by her order to teach second grade in Camden. “That first year,” she says, “I was overwhelmed by the poverty, and abandoned houses, and couches, and cars. I’d never experienced anything like that in my life.”

Cole knew she had to do something more to help, so she got a degree in social work and in 1995, along with two priests (one a doctor, the other a lawyer), formed the Jesuit Urban Service Team. Cole thought she’d be helping families and working with preschoolers. Instead, a missing 13-year-old girl changed everything.

“Her parents came that weekend and asked us to hang up flyers,” Cole remembers. “On Monday, she was found brutally raped and murdered. My whole life changed.”

Soon, the family members of murder victims were showing up every morning on the porch of the rowhome headquarters of Guadalupe Family Services, which Cole now runs. “They would ask, ‘Are you the nun that helps people?’”

In the nearly 20 years since, Cole – who Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson calls “the Mother Theresa of Camden” – has ushered dozens of families through both the justice system and the grieving process.

“We’ll go to court with people. We’ll stay the whole time,” Cole says. “It can take a long time – sometimes it’s years before they have resolution. Then there’s a different kind of emptiness.”

“What I learned from these families is that I needed to promise them that I would walk with them through this – whatever it would take and however long it would take,” Cole adds. “I call it companion-ing – that’s what I do with families of murder victims. What is needed to face something as terrible as murder is community – feeling like you’re not alone. That’s where strength comes from.”

“So when I tell them I will walk with them, I will ‘companion’ them, I will accompany them until there is a resolution, I keep my promise.”

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