Helen Schick started making memorial ribbons for fallen firefighters after she was diagnosed with cancer almost two years ago. She recently made ribbons for Capt. Michael Goodwin’s funeral, and says the hobby is her small way of lending a hand to her community.
Every time Helen Schick hears about a firefighter’s death, she said, her heart still jumps.
That comes from 23 years of being married to one.
“Every time I hear it, they never say their name,” said Schick, 58, of the moments when media outlets first report that a Philadelphia firefighter has died. “Everybody’s calling everybody to find out who sacrificed their life. It’s so scary.”
Recently, Schick was shaken by the news that another Philadelphia firefighter had fallen in the line of duty — Capt. Michael Goodwin, who perished in a fabric store fire in Queen Village on April 6. Goodwin had spent much of his career serving the River Wards area.
Schick said she remembered Goodwin from parties at the Fireman’s Hall years ago.
Upon news of his death, Schick did what came naturally to her — she made ribbons for his funeral service.
Schick prepared decorations for Goodwin’s celebration of life service at St. Michael’s Church on April 11. She made red and brown ribbons – “firefighter ribbons,” she called them — which she sold to benefit Goodwin’s family. She took the extras and decorated lampposts and doors all along Cumberland Street in Kensington, where she lives, and where many of her neighbors include paramedics and other employees of the Philadelphia Fire Department.
“She does it when she sees somebody that dies. She does all the ribbons and puts them everywhere,” said Shick’s friend Barbara Shiffler. Schiffler’s sister Terry owns Luke’s Bar on Cedar Street, where Schick used to work. “She’s a great woman. She’s always been there for people.”
Schick knows the names of lost firefighters by heart, she said. Firefighters John J. Redmond and Vencent Acey, who died fighting the Rising Sun Baptist Church fire in South Philly in January 1994. Firefighter Joseph Konrad, who died fighting a fire on Tulip Street in June 1984. Her ex-husband was on both of those fires, she said.
“Once you’re a fireman’s wife, you’re always connected to firefighters,” Schick said.
She also made ribbons for the funerals of Lt. Robert Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney, who perished in Kensington’s Buck Hosiery Factory fire a year ago.
Schick has been making ribbons for fun and selling them on the side for more than two decades.
“It’s my hobby, and it gives me a little extra money than my disability check,” Schick said.
She sells her bows for $1 apiece for birthdays and other celebrations, $3 for fancier ribbons, and creates huge amounts of bows at times of mourning. She cuts and ties them all by hand in her living room.
The ribbons Schick sold for Goodwin’s family amounted to about $350, and money is still coming in. She said intends to donate the money in his memory.
One firefighter who saw Schick’s work at Goodwin’s memorial services is even asking her to do wedding decorations for him.
Ribbon-making became Schick’s full time occupation since she stopped tending bar at Luke’s Bar about a year and a half ago, after being diagnosed with cancer.
“It’s keeping her alive right now,” Schiffler said of Schick’s ribbon making.
Schick was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil.
Her cancer is currently in remission, but side effects from chemotherapy and radiation treatments have damaged her sight and hearing on her left side, enlarged her liver and destroyed her saliva glands, leaving her relying on a feeding tube and unable to work outside of her home.
That doesn’t mean she’s lost her sense of humor or love of life.
“Anybody says they can’t diet, they’re full of [it], if I can live on formula going in my belly for a year and a half,” Schick joked.
Now she occupies her time making ribbon bows year-round – in part just to give neighbors a cheaper rate.
“People told me a flower shop wanted to charge them $22 for a bow. And they weren’t even half as pretty as mine,” Schick said, laughing.
“I brag about my bows, even my kid and grandkids know,” she said with pride.
She’s already excited to make red, white and blue bows for the Fourth of July.
“It’s whatever I can do to help.” Schick said. “I’m willing to do whatever I can for anybody. It’s not much. Whatever I can do, I will do for them, and I still can thank God I’m alive.”
Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.