Inquirer Editorial: She loves Camden

Helene Pierson, executive director of the nonprofit known as the Heart of Camden, is The Inquirer's 2010 Citizen of the Year.
Helene Pierson, executive director of the nonprofit known as the Heart of Camden, is The Inquirer's 2010 Citizen of the Year.

Inquirer Citizen of the Year winner is dedicated to the city

Posted: January 02, 2011

Across Camden's Waterfront South neighborhood signs are emerging that the once industrial wasteland could be on the brink of better days.

It has been a slow transition for the neighborhood that in many ways reflects the prolonged struggles of the poor city of 79,000 residents to change its destiny.

Like other parts of Camden, the neighborhood has been a dumping ground - for everything from human waste to human failure.

Crime and prostitution run rampant on trash-littered streets where schoolchildren, waiting for a school bus, share a corner with drug dealers. A sewage treatment plant occasionally blankets the neighborhood with wafts of foul air.

But Waterfront South is also the home of one of the strongest and most prolonged grassroots revitalization efforts in the city spearheaded by the Heart of Camden, a nonprofit that has been working to rebuild the neighborhood for three decades.

The results thus far are impressive: 200 rehabilitated homes, an art gallery, a greenhouse, and a community center under construction. The South Camden Theater opened in June. And more is in the works.

While this has been a team effort spanning many years, one person stands out for her tireless advocacy to change the landscape and culture in the neighborhood and improve the quality of life for its residents.

For that reason, the Editorial Board has selected HELENE PIERSON, executive director of the Heart of Camden, as The Inquirer's 2010 Citizen of the Year.

In a downtrodden city where hope seems to fade with each sunset, Pierson stands out as a shining example of the crucial role that nonprofits play in forgotten areas like Camden. The city ranks among the poorest and most dangerous places to live.

With recently announced budget cuts that will drastically cut the police and fire departments, the future appears even more grim for Camden.

Pierson concerns herself with all things Camden, but especially the issues that affect the roughly 1,700 residents in Waterfront South. She has fought to get security cameras installed to curb crime and lobbied for more federal funding to clean up contaminated sites.

"There were some that looked at this neighborhood and said no one should live here," Pierson said. "Our position always was how can we make it better?"

Pierson was among more than a dozen worthy nominations submitted for Citizen of the Year. They include entertainer-activist Jon Bon Jovi; Wei Chen, a former South Philadelphia High student who rallied Asian students to find a peaceful response to racial attacks against them; and Marsha Moore, a community organizer who was beaten by "Stop Snitching" gang members.

The award goes to Pierson because of her courageous and bold leadership, and ability to get things done, despite the ever-changing political landscape in Camden. She has stood up to drug dealers and party bosses, and lured funders to invest big dollars to make things happen.

She has formed partnerships with former adversaries such as the Camden County Municipal Authority and successfully advocated to reduce emissions from its sewage treatment plant.

In 2009, Pierson, with support from the working-class Waterfront South community, helped thwart a $1.9 million state-funded plan endorsed by this Editorial Board to move a methadone clinic to the neighborhood.

"She's a gift of God to us," says the Rev. Michael Doyle, the venerable spiritual leader of Sacred Heart Church. "She's making a difference where it isn't easy to make a difference."

Pierson spent time regularly in Camden as a child and always dreamed of returning to work in the city. She jumped at the chance in 2001 after a 16-year career at Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. Her husband, Tom, works for the company that now publishes The Inquirer.

"I'm committed to staying here for the long haul," Pierson said. "My hope is that Camden will become a nice play to live. There are great people here."

This is The Inquirer's seventh annual Citizen of the Year award, honoring people whose work has upheld the ideals of citizenship - promoting justice, strengthening democracy, or fostering community. The board considers nominees from business, science and medicine, education, government, arts and culture, civic activism, sports, and entertainment.

In 2009, the winners were attorneys Marsha Levick and Lourdes Rosado of the Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit public-interest law firm for children. In 2008, it was Harry S. Pozycki, chairman of the Center for Civic Responsibility in New Jersey. In 2007, it was Helen Gym of the public-schools advocacy group Parents United. Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. won in 2006 for his work helping children of incarcerated parents. In 2005, Russell Diamond, Timothy Potts, and Eugene Stilp won for the pay-raise revolt in Harrisburg. The first recipient was former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean for leading the independent 9/11 Commission.

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