At age 80, Ms. Helen Rayon has lived a rich life full of fruitful experiences. Friday, February 7th is a momentous day for this woman who has served as a mentor, a friend, and a source of support for so many at the West Philadelphia Senior Community Center (WPSCC) – it is the day that marks her fourth retirement.
For the past 13 years, Helen has served as the Center’s health and wellness coordinator. Her tenure there was caused by pure happenstance. As a sudden storm ripped through the region one evening in late 2006, a tree to snapped and crushed her car. Faced with the need to purchase new transportation, she felt that it was best if she came out of retirement and got a job. Helen didn’t mind, she defines herself as an individual who needs to keep busy and finds joy in work.
Following the accidents and ever mindful to take measures to keep perspective, Helen decided to go to her local grocery store to buy some peppermint tea. While in the store, she met a supervisor from the newly opened West Philadelphia Senior Community Center who asked her to come by the next day. With a background in education as a teacher and with her skillset, the Center’s leadership knew she would be the perfect fit for the health and wellness coordinator position.
During her time at the Center, Helen, who is affectionately known as Ray Ray, has not only facilitated the implementation of wellness programs – she has made significant and lasting connections with members and staff, leaving an indelible impression upon their lives.
On Wednesday, February 6th, dozens of people gathered at the Center to honor Helen during a retirement Celebration. People spoke about her great impact, and at one point literally sang her praises. It is clear that Helen has is truly cared for, which is evidence that her contributions have meant so much to the people of this community.
Rich with History
Prior to joining the Center, Helen lived history. In her younger years, she was involved in the civil rights movement having participated in a sit-in in Sumter, South Carolina. Today, the significance of such courage is hard to put into perspective. There would be backlash on both sides, but Helen knew that the courage she would demonstrate was necessary to create real change.
Her streak as a trailblazer continued a few years later, in 1965, when she became the first African American woman to attend graduate classes at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. During her time there, at periods when the college would allow women to attend classes, mainly over the summer and winter breaks, she pushed the boundaries of the famed military school in the Deep South, which was known for its all-male undergraduate student body, the South Carolina corps of cadets.
Indeed, The Citadel did not have an African American graduate from the Corps until 1970. But there was Helen, in classrooms learning and demonstrating her academic prowess, impressing teachers even in the face of opposition, one year before that cadet would step onto campus.
Road to the White House
One day, while working at the Center, Helen received a call asking her to join a panel at The African American Museum to discuss healthcare policy with then-US Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius. As the only panelist to speak about the health of seniors, Helen made an impression.
Later, while on one of the Center’s wonderful trips, she received a message to call the Center’s executive director immediately. When she called back, Helen was informed that the White House was looking for her. She didn’t wait to call them, and was asked to come to the White House for a women’s health forum. Her input and the knowledge she shared directly affected US healthcare policy. This portion of Helen’s story will live forever in the US Archives, where you can read and hear more.
A Bright and Active Future
When asked why she stayed at the Center for 13 years “There’s something about the atmosphere here that says stay. When I came in this morning, I knew they were going to do something for my retirement, but I didn’t expect to see so many people. It’s touched me. I saw one woman who has been sick and hasn’t been here in months, and she came just today. I almost broke down when I saw her.”
Now, as Helen retires, she looks forward to spending time with her children and grandchildren. In order to stay busy, she will volunteer with her church, Mother Bethel A.M.E, the nation’s first African American denomination in the United States, as they endeavor to preserve history and work with the City for public projects.
For Helen, being a part of The West Philadelphia Senior Community Center has been another brilliant chapter in her life. “I’ve been very happy being a part of this community,” she says.
The people here are like a family. We take care of each other, we look after one another. Seniors need other seniors to support them. I have loved it here, and I will be back.
Sometimes there are people who surround us who have lived such incredible lives that it takes your breath away to hear their story. Helen is such a person. Her plethora of contributions has moved history and impacted countless lives.