PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Helen Brown is a sweet, yet powerful force in her lower North Philadelphia neighborhood.
“Some of them call me grandmama, some of them call me big mama,” she says, of the residents of her block off of North 18th Street.
Also known as “Miss Helen” and “Brown Sugar,” Brown’s work began nearly three decades ago when she was tapped by Project Home as they worked to transform the old St. Elizabeth’s convent in the 1990’s. She worked with the organization and Sister Mary Scullion and eventually showed the staff becoming the seed that planted growth and change in the area.
“We were able to do houses for first time home buyers,” says Miss Helen, “we were able to take some of the vacant lots, clean them up and make sitting parks.”
Brown is a community organizer at Project Home and is an integral part of their work in North Philadelphia. A neighborhood block captain, she’s helped close drug houses, advocate for stricter drug laws and so much more. But her passion extends well beyond development. She loves the people.
Miss Helen is founder of the North Philly FootStompers, an award-winning drill team serving three generations of young people. She was also an integral part of establishing a Comcast community resource computer lab and a food pantry in her neighborhood. Brown has helped high school seniors secure scholarships to college, mentored University of Pennsylvania students, helps senior residents, mentored neighborhood kids and cleaned up the blocks without using a syrupy word.
“I tell them it’s time to get to work, time to get off the corners,” she says. “I don’t sugar coat nothing because these kids need to know it.”
Brown has met presidents, like Bill Clinton, and rock stars, like Bon Jovi. And when it’s time to vote, she goes door-to-door.
“I tell them, if you don’t come out to vote you know the consequences,” she says, noting that the folks eventually head right into the voting booth. “They know I don’t play.”
Well into her 70s, she’s a neighborhood mom, grandmom and change agent, transforming her neighborhood, starting right at her own doorstep.
“I just try to make it better for the people who live here,” says Brown.