Sarah Martinez-Helfman's office in the Novacare Complex overlooks the expanse of green field where the Philadelphia Eagles are preparing for the upcoming season. Her room is also cluttered with autographed team memorabilia. Nonetheless, she doesn't want to talk football.
During a conversation about her position as executive director of the Eagles Youth Partnership and its work with underprivileged kids, the 42-year-old explains that after high school, she spent six months on a religious kibbutz near Ashkelon, and was once fluent in Hebrew.
Being Jewish is at the core of her being, she insists, though she no longer practices the Conservative Judaism of her youth or believes in God. Neither her life partner, Marcia Martinez-Helfman, nor the 10-year-old son they're raising are Jewish.
The way she reconciles these seemingly disparate facts helps explain the life path she's taken, which among other things has included being the director of a rape-crisis center; a substance-abuse councilor for adolescent boys; an advisor to corporations and wealthy individuals on charitable giving in England, Ireland and Russia; and an administrator for the AmeriCorps program.
"It's the Judaism with an ethic of social justice and giving that I find nourishing," she says.
And for the past 11 years, she's put that ethic into practice though the Eagles Youth Partnership. Like Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles' owner, she believes that the devotion – some would say fanaticism – that the Birds inspire could be harnessed to make a difference in the community.
"Jeffrey Lurie was very cognizant of the kind of leverage that the team could have in this city," says Martinez-Helfman. "We operate direct service programs. We target the hardest-to-reach kids with services that they urgently need, but wouldn't get any other way."
When Lurie purchased the team more than a decade ago, the Eagles were one of two National Football League franchises without a charity. Now, thanks largely to the work of Martinez-Helfman, who has headed the Eagles Youth Partnership for the entirety of Lurie's tenure, the charity – with a roughly $1.4 million annual budget – is considered one of the premier philanthropic projects in pro sports. This year, it's been recognized with awards from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Sports Philanthropy Project.
Seeing the Light
The youth partnership is perhaps best known for operating the Eagles Eye Mobile, a green truck covered with the team logo that ferries an optometrist to needy communities. Last year, the project gave free eye exams to nearly 3,000 public-school students in Philadelphia and nearby Chester; some 80 percent of the kids needed glasses, which the organization provided.
"It's remarkable how you can take a pair of glasses and put them on a child who needs them – and absolutely change their life," states Martinez-Helfman.
The woman's social-justice mantra stems from a childhood in suburban Pittsburgh, where her mother was active in the civil-rights movement. Martinez-Helfman believes that it was because of those efforts that bigots decided to target her family, vandalizing their home with a swastika and burning crosses on their lawn.
That seems only to have created a burning desire in Martinez-Helfman to work to improve the lives of as many individuals as she seemingly can.
"There is something to celebrate in the truth that we are all connected," she says. "Feeling compassion – that's not something to run away from. You cannot build a wall around your community, your homes, your hearts. If you do, it's like cutting off your own oxygen."