The Final Salute by Charlie Hills 

By Charlie Hills

“In the face of impossible odds, people who love this country, can change it.” – Barack Obama

James Edward Helman, known to many as “Jim”, was more than a friend, neighbor and community activist—he was a South Philadelphia legend. Jim’s life service embraced his love for our country and the City of Philadelphia, particularly the South Philadelphia Grays Ferry & Point Breeze community.

Born January, 13th 1946 in Allentown, PA, Jim was an educated U.S. Army Veteran who proudly served our country in 1966 and was honorably discharged in 1974. He served in various capacities including: personnel clerk, personnel records supervisor, clerk supervisor and a personnel sergeant while in the army.
He was honored with receiving a National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal w/60 Device, Meritorious Service Medal and a Good Conduct Medal. While these medals are representative of his accomplishments, it was his selflessness and courageous spirit that carried over into his civilian life.

Jim had an assertive way with words. His presence was heard as much as it was seen. That personality along with his numerous acts of generosity will have a lasting impact on everyone who crossed his path.  Keenly aware of the persistent patterns of systematic racism and how it impacts nearly every facet of life for people of color, he bravely became a champion of change. He faced the challenges of exacerbated racial inequality in South Philadelphia by trying to diversify the Grays Ferry & Point Breeze neighborhood and establish unity between black and white people within his community during segregated times. He was a staunch activist and benefactor, always willing to sacrifice a lot so that anyone with whom he came in contact could have a little more.

He had a sharp tongue and didn’t mince words; but it wasn’t to be rude. He simply had a lot he wanted to accomplish and no time to waste with a whole lot of talking. To him, everyone regardless of ethnicity, economic status, or financial circumstances, was entitled to the necessities of life—food, housing, education and employment—in order to maintain a healthy and productive lifestyle for themselves and their families. VARE Recreation Center is where he sought to do just that.

VARE Recreation Center was the much-needed safe haven for all children, youth and young adults within his community. It was a place where the doors were open for everyone in the neighborhood. It provided nearly all of the necessities of life that he so passionately advocated for all-in-one location. Anyone in need of a meal, resource assistance, educational enrichment or an employment opportunity could receive it there.

Over time, VARE became Jim’s extended family. Not having enough funding was a non-factor when it came to his community’s safety and security at VARE. As a result, and due to the high crime rate in the South Philadelphia area, one of the resolutions, he implemented and personally financed was installing the 1st surveillance system at VARE in the hopes that other Philadelphia Parks and Recreation centers would follow suit.

With the help of community members, organizations and developers, he also diligently worked to ensure the VARE Summer Basketball League (VSBL) was properly funded. This program formed by Maurice “Bleak” Taylor, Eugene Williams, Warren “Boobie” Abbott and Rashon “Doo Doo” Goodin was an answer to reducing gun violence in the community. He supported their vision and believed it would keep young black men ages 18 – 27 on the courts instead of in the streets through numerous summers. These games created a much-needed energy of camaraderie and live energetic entertainment for various neighborhood spectators.

In addition, Jim actively participated in various community organizations such as the Police District Advisory Council (PDAC), VARE’s Advisory Council, Point Breeze Community Development Coalition Inc, South Philadelphia HO.M.E.S. INC. and Town Watch to help further community unification.

Jim quietly passed on November 30th, 2020, and was laid to rest on December 9th 2020. Though he is gone, his legacy and impact on his community lives on. Jim dedicated eight years of service to our country and two decades to the South Philadelphia Grays Ferry & Point Breeze Community. His compassion and community contribution will continue through the memories we have of him. He will never be forgotten, and for all that he has done—We Salute.

Due to the unprecedented times, we are living in, a Memorial service tribute to honor the life of Jim Helman will happen, but at a later date. Service will be hosted by close friend, Claudia S. Sherrod. For more information, please contact her at