For all her life, Helene
Gottfried has been helping the
Now she's concentrating on
finding them jobs.
elene Gottfried's speech impediment
makes her nervous in front of large
groups. One-on-one, she's fine.
Her impediment led her to char-
itable acts as a child in the Jewish
south Bronx, actions that have con-
tinued throughout her adulthood in Detroit.
Her speech problem caused her to be "ultra-shy"
as a girl. "I had a difficult time relating to people,"
she says. She felt far more comfortable
playing with the handicapped children in
It became a loosely run play group
bossed by Helene, daughter of a local Orthodox rab-
bi. Her father's prominence allowed her to bother the
neighborhood's Jewish merchants for toys and cloth-
ing for area poor black children at Christmas time.
Her mother encouraged Helene, believing the girl's
speech would improve if she was forced to commu-
nicate. It wasn't until years later that Helene ad-
mitted to her mother that she wrote notes to the
merchants so she would not have to speak.
That perseverance and ingenuity has stood He-
lene Gottfried in good stead. Over the years, first
in Royal Oak and then for 31 years in Southfield,
Ms. Gottfried has helped thousands of developmen-
tally disabled children and adults with recreation
programs, counseling, and finding jobs.
Like most Mitzvah Heroes, Ms. Gottfried doesn't
think she's done anything special. Conversation about
her work always swings back to what is needed now:
volunteer therapists, volunteer drivers, job oppor-
tunities for her "clients."
"I became involved because there was a need.
There were no programs going on. No agencies, no
churches, no synagogues were working with the
handicapped before I was born," says the "almost
69"-year-old Ms. Gottfried.
When she came to Detroit with her husband,
Bernard, in 1948, she continued her parties and do-
nations for the handicapped — "They say develop-
mentally disabled now."
Her son Hagen, the fifth of her seven children,
spurred her to become even more involved. Hagen
was born with developmental disabilities.
"There were no programs for him," she says. "So
I created programs."
They included Omni Sports, Learning Through
Art, creative drama with the help of the Attic The-
atre, and taking children and young adults to the
Jewish Community Center for swimming and exer-
She harassed the Southfield Public Schools for two
years until "Dr. Elliott Burns and Superintendent
Dr. John English opened up the doors for me."
Because Ms. Gottfried doesn't drive, she asked for
the use of schools near her home in the Nine Mile-
Beech area. On weekends, she had her husband
Bernard drive her to Southfield High School so she
could offer swim classes for persons with disabilities.
Elaine Friedman's family has been helped by Ms.
Gottfried for more than 20 years. Daughter Laura,
now 32, was a special-education student starting in
"Helene created a social group for children, creat-
ed birthday parties, bought tickets for shows," Mrs.
Friedman says. "She's helped everyone who has ever
needed help. She's a very devoted, old-fashioned Jew-
ish mother and grandmother and I love her a lot."
As Ms. Gottfried's own children grew older, they
and their friends got involved in her volunteer pro-
jects, working one-on-one with clients and providing
transportation. Many of the Gottfried children have
had their careers influenced by this work.
Nannette was a therapist for 23 years before get-
ting into the marketing field; Ivana is an actress and
now has a production company in Los Angeles; Lin-
da is an artist in Boulder; Heidi is a professor of so-
ciology at Purdue; Hagen is a client of Jewish
Association for Residential Care, training toward in-
dependent living; Joey is a child psychiatrist in Veil;
and Erica is completing her master's in political sci-
ence at the University of Chile.
As her children have grown and since her hus-
band's death in 1992, Ms. Gottfried, a member of
Beth Achim, has redirected her efforts.
"I ran out of money," she says. She no longer can
afford to hire counselors and psychologists. "Now,"
she says, "it's mainly counseling. Whenever they
have a problem, I try to smooth it out."
Says friend Charlene Ehrlich, "Everyone knows
Helene. If anyone needs anything, Helene calls peo-
ple and finds it."
Ms. Ehrlich has a 24-year-old son with learning
disabilities. The two women became friends nine
years ago when Ms. Ehrlich's son began attending
Ms. Gottfried's programs. In 1991, the boy needed a
"Helene Gottfried helped raise a lot of money for
that operation," Ms. Ehrlich says. "She sponsored
several fund-raisers. She's a fantastic person. Any-
one can call her for help."
And they do. Her most frequent call is someone
seeking a job for a person with disabilities. Using her
late husband's connections — he was area head of
the National Labor Relations Board and a founder
of the local American Civil Liberties Union — she
phones supermarkets, fast-food chains and retail
"These people desperately need jobs," she says.
"They are very dependable. They just need patience
How many clients has she helped find jobs? Ms.
Gottfried doesn't know, "but I've placed nine this
week. They are in their 20s and up to age 60."
Most are helped once or twice, though she helped
one find six jobs. "Right now I'm trying to place a
man who loves animals, but he doesn't do well with
people. Do you happen to know a veterinarian who
could use him?"
"Helping out people is a good habit," she says.
"When you do good, you feel good."
Her goal for the future is to get counseling for chil-
dren when they first enter the public schools. "If
we wait until they're teens, it gets too complex. This
way they can flourish and help humanity.
"It's so rewarding working with these young
people. You can see progress. It's really a selfish mo-
To help with her volunteer programs, driving
or job placement, call Helene Gottfried at 3584875.