Edgar J. Helms: An Iowa boy with an extraordinary vision

Helms Career Center sign in Moline, IL

Edgar James Helms was the son of William Sands and Lerona Kesaih Sherwin Helms. He was born 159 years ago today on Jan. 19, 1863, in a small, wilderness lumber camp near Malone in upstate New York. His father was a logging superintendent at the camp, and his mother, Lerona, was the cook.

Roughly two years later the family took advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act, loaded a covered wagon and moved to a farmstead near Nashua, Iowa, before moving a bit further west near Spirit Lake, where Edgar grew up with his sisters and brother.

Edgar's early years were spent on an Iowa farmstead until he turned 15 and apprenticed at a local newspaper (Spirit Lake Beacon) with plans of becoming a journalist. Although he later co-published two newspapers with a friend, Edward Blackert, and at one point had to suspend his studies due to a lack of funding, Helms ultimately graduated from Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa (Class of 1889) with a degree in philosophy.

After graduation, Helms married his long-time finacee, Eugenia "Jean" Preston, in 1892. The couple traveled to Massachusetts where they both attended Boston University Theological School. There was a plan to serve as missionaries abroad but the Methodist Church didn't allow such service for married couples. Instead, they spent time with immigrant communities in north Boston. Jean died in 1900, after the couple had three children.

It was at age 32, after Helms accepted a ministry position at Morgan Chapel in poverty-stricken south Boston and had remarried to Grace Preston, that his vision of Goodwill Industries began.

Reverend Helms went door-to-door in 1902, requesting local residents give him donations, and then he put local men and women to work repairing what he had collected. The refurbished shoes, clothing and other household items were then sold to provide for the less fortunate -- of which there were many due in large part to a devastating financial crisis. Helms believed when people, even people in poverty, paid a small amount for these refurbished items the outcome was self-respect and dignity. "A chance and not charity."

Helms believed ending the cycle of poverty could be achieved through helping those in need become self-sufficient. Goodwill Industries International as well as all Goodwill organizations continue this belief in the power and dignity of work. Helms described Goodwill Industries as an "industrial program as well as a social service enterprise ... a provider of employment, training and rehabilitation for people of limited employability, and a source of temporary assistance for individuals whose resources were depleted."

Rev. Edgar J. Helms (1863-1942)

Rev. Edgar J. Helms (1863-1942)

Grace and the Reverend had nine children. (A grandson served on the Goodwill of the Heartland board.) Helms' family as well as his vision are his legacy.

"We have courage and are unafraid," he once said. "With the prayerful cooperation of millions of our bag contributors and of our workers, we will press on till the curse of poverty and exploitation is banished from mankind."

Edgar James Helms died on Dec. 23, 1942 in Boston, but his work continues.

Edgar J Helms quotation