Heart of Camden leader stepping down

Helene Pierson surrounded by children in the gymnasium at the Heart of Camden building.
Helene Pierson surrounded by children in the gymnasium at the Heart of Camden building. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 24, 2013

Helene Pierson isn't a big fan of talking about her work. She'd rather walk the Waterfront South streets and point out the rain gardens where abandoned gas stations once stood, the corner theater and new gymnasium, the greenhouses, community gardens, and some of the 250 houses the nonprofit Heart of Camden has renovated and sold in an area once described as unlivable.

As executive director of Heart of Camden, Pierson has been a force in the impoverished neighborhood, sandwiched between industry and highway. She's unafraid to shoo drug dealers off porches or stand up to Congress on the handling of Superfund sites, and her brassy style and untempered passion has led to instrumental changes in the area. After 12 years at the helm, Pierson will step down at the end of this month to take a community development position in Salem City. The Heart of Camden board of directors will find her replacement.

"This job needs new energy," Pierson said, sitting on the roof of the Heart of Camden building on a lawn chair, looking out over the city. "I said I wouldn't do it more than 10 years. I've been here 12."

There's another reason, one she hesitates to cite - the drain of working to build up a community so continually battered down by violence.

"I refuse to turn off feelings about the violence that goes on here. People in large numbers become immune. I refuse to," she said. "And I think I became traumatized myself."

It's hard not to. In addition to her community development work, Pierson, known as "HP" in the neighborhood, has formed relationships with the children, taking them to swim at a pool in Collingswood during summer and to dinners throughout the year. She and her team have created a haven of comfort for families whose lives have been shattered by violence.

"She took me under her wing," said Julian Jaquez, 17, a senior at Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill who met Pierson when he was 10. He said Pierson became his godmother and a major role model.

"I've always seen her passion for Camden and shared the same beliefs and ideas for the future. She's had so much love for all of us . . . I always say, and it makes her laugh, 'When I grow up I want to be the head of Heart of Camden.' "

Pierson grew up in Collingswood but has roots in Camden and spent most of her childhood working and visiting family in the Waterfront South neighborhood. She graduated from Drexel University and worked for 16 years in finance and management for The Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News.

Pierson, who won The Inquirer's 2010 citizen of the year award, is credited with expanding the nonprofit from mostly home renovations to holistic community development. Under her guidance, thousands of trees were planted, the nearby wastewater management plant addressed air quality, and a methadone clinic was blocked from coming to the neighborhood.

"She's brilliant, she's gutsy, and she's fun," said the Rev. Michael Doyle, who has worked extensively with Pierson in the neighborhood. "It's hard to find those three in anyone. I'm sad, sad, sad, to see her go."

Michael Lang, founding director of the Shipyard and Maritime Museum under construction on Broadway Avenue, credited Pierson with saving an area the city had written off. "They just wanted to close it down. But the neighborhood that was there wanted to fight back," he said.

Willie Barnes, the unofficial mayor of Waterfront South, said Pierson championed that cause. "She came over here and made a foundation for what it's going to be. She knew from the beginning it's not about moving people out but finding ways of keeping them in." He said she didn't bring pride back to the neighborhood, "she created it."

Pierson has also fostered talents and ideas from within the community. When Joe Paprczyki came to her with the idea of establishing a theater where his grandfather's corner bar once stood, she untangled the property web, raised money for building, then asked what he wanted it to look like inside.

"Helene knows how to get things done," Paprczyki said. "She's a lady who's not shy. She'll walk right up to people and say, 'This is what I need. How are you going to help me?'"

Mayor Dana L. Redd called Pierson instrumental in the revitalization of the area. "We will miss her. We wish her well on her new endeavor, but I'm sure she will always call Camden home."

Pierson will stay on as a project manager one day a week to help Heart of Camden transition and to ensure the completion of several projects, including a firehouse that will become an art gallery and an abandoned building turned into a writers' coffeehouse.

Pierson's advice for her replacement is to take time to celebrate even the smallest victories and always think about what's best for the youth. "Think about the children," she said. "I always asked myself, is this good enough for Julian? Never stop asking, 'Is this good enough for them?' "

856-779-3876

jterruso@phillynews.com

@juliaterruso

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