Helen Castillo: Shaking things up as PAFCOM president

‘We have very good leaders.’ Photo by Boyet Loverita

By Cristina DC Pastor

For the coming year, PAFCOM will have a different spectacle for U.S.-Philippine friendship day.

There will be no single grand marshal. What incoming President Helen Castillo would like to happen is for all past grand marshals to headline the parade as the Philippine American Friendship Community, Inc. marks its 30th anniversary. The celebration will herald bands, hip hop artists, and food trucks.

“I will not have a grand marshal next year but will have all the past grand marshals to be at the parade,” said Helen in an interview with The FilAm. “I want them to relive the time when they were grand marshals.  I want them to be more involved and be recognized at the gala.”

Helen, 59, is a rare leader in the community. She has been affiliated with only one organization for many years and that is PAFCOM, a non-profit that mobilizes Filipinos in New Jersey, identifies their needs, and works toward improving their quality of life as immigrants.

She started out as an observer in 1997, invited by her long-time partner Edwin Solano. The following year, she decided to make the leap toward membership and offered to help out in the parade.

It’s been two decades since she joined. Helen has been behind the scenes, in front, on the sidelines, and from time to time stepping up when some leaders are not available or not up to their tasks. Through varying roles, she learned the ropes. As she began to acquire more experience, more responsibilities fell on her lap: booth assignments, permits for parades, fundraising, grant writing, etc. She took her duties seriously and always with the graciousness of one who is genuinely devoted to her club, her one and only.

Helen dancing, walking for a cause, and just enjoying a quick getaway to Washington D.C. Photos by Gani Puertollano and Lumen Castaneda

“Since I joined PAFCOM I have been a loyalist,” she said. “I am not a member of any other organization. I am a person who gives my 100 percent to what I believe in. I cannot serve two masters at a time.”

In 2004, Helen became Overall Chairperson, ushering in her membership in the board in the succeeding years.  She took part in organizing PAFCOM’S  Zumba, yoga and line dancing health and fitness program; youth basketball clinics; fundraising for Typhoon Haiyan in collaboration with ABS-CBN; fundraising for the Balatbat family who died in a Virginia tornado; and numerous annual parades. In collaboration withLet’s Celebrate Soup Kitchen, PAFCOM has been serving Filipino breakfast and lunch to the homeless community of Jersey City for four years now. Its “Pusong-Pinoy” health fair in collaboration with Holy Name Medical Center and now with Jersey City Medical Center is another well-attended gathering, as its annual “Pasko sa Hudson Mall.”

“I like PAFCOM because of the diverse membership and the transparency. We have very good leaders who make sure we are on track and compliant with regulations governing a non-profit organization,” she said.

Her three sons. Daniel, a chef at a Japanese restaurant; Lawrence, a public school teacher; and Joseph who is in the U.S. Navy and works with veterans.

Single parent

A graduate of Agricultural Business from the University of the Philippines, Los Banos, Helen came to the U.S. in 1993, staying in California initially. She was urged by her parents to come to the U.S. after the end of her marriage.

“My parents said I have no future in the Philippines,” she said. “I came here as a tourist.”

After two months in Northwood, Irvine, she moved to Jersey City and fell in love with the city by the Hudson. She got her working visa after three months working for the production company of Tommy Hilfiger in Manhattan. She worked with the private-label company for almost a decade.

After two years as a property manager for a company in Short Hills, N.J., Helen joined the Math Department of the New Jersey City University in Jersey City. As a program assistant, she juggles many duties, such as coordinating the department calendar, maintaining students’ files, reviewing and recommending vendors, and authorizing payment. A role that requires resourcefulness, exceptional intellect, and focus. She has been with NJCU for 15 years now.

With Jersey City Council President Rolando Lavarro, the highest-ranking FilAm elected official in the city.

In PAFCOM, Helen found a ‘family.’ People who like to get involved with the community and also get together for some recreation every once in a while.  

In 2010, Helen was one of the recipients of Jersey City’s Women of Action Award, and Volunteer of the Year Award from then Governor Chris Christie. In 2012, she was honored by the Pan American Concerned Citizens Action League for Community Leadership. She was recognized in Chicago in 2015 and given the Prism Leadership award by PAMANA.

Helen’s understated leadership has seen PAFCOM through its coming of age. She is proud of the organization that has supported a FilAm’s election to Jersey City’s governing leadership referring to Council President Rolando Lavarro.

PAFCOM, she added, is also the first Filipino non-profit to receive grants from the government. And here, she has a bit more to say about organizations and how they can create a culture of accountability. “I believe that if an organization asks money from people, it is the organization’s responsibility to tell people how the money was spent, where the money went,” she said.

© The FilAm 2019

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