“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
My husband and I were both nurses. We worked hard to have a good home to raise our children in. We love our children, and we were always involved in their lives and their education. We were close to our extended family, our church, and our community. Despite this, my beloved daughter got involved with “party crews” and drugs. That led our family on a painful journey filled with helplessness and guilt. At the end, though, the journey led me to a life in public service and to a world of people with great strength, hope, faith, and love.
My Childhood in the Philippines
I was born in 1944 in a small barrio called San Jose, Agoo, La Union, in the Philippines. I was raised by my maternal grandparents, while my parents lived in neighboring Baguio City (a practice that was not common). My father was a taxicab driver. He was quick to help others—a poor man with a big heart. When I was 9 years old, while he was working late, he gave a ride home to a group of young men who didn’t have money for the fare. He was murdered that night, leaving my mother with 6 children—the youngest barely 6 months old. With no means of support, the rest of the family moved in with my grandparents as well. My mother’s brother, who had lived in the United States for many years, supported us. At age 9, I became a caregiver. I taught my siblings prayers, and I led the household chores. I graduated from Saint Mary’s Academy High School in 1961 with no hope of pursuing my college education, even though I had graduated as the valedictorian.
Then a miracle occurred. My uncle invited me to the U.S. Against the odds, I was granted a student visa by a consul who heard about my mother’s six children. That blessing meant that I had to leave my family and travel to a land and culture that was very alien to me. Upon reaching California, I lived with a family member who did not speak or understand my native language. I attended Jefferson High School in Daly City and found myself to be one of a handful of Filipino-Americans there. It was lonely and frightening, but it was also a challenge. Slowly, I traced my relatives and found a welcoming Filipino community in the San Francisco Bay Area. That “clan” became my family and support system in the U.S. The trauma of being a 16-year-old very far from home gradually eased.
Becoming A Nurse, Wife, Mother—and U.S. Citizen
Two years after arriving in the U.S., I was admitted to San Francisco State College as a nursing student. It was not easy being a full-time student. I had no money for books. (I sent my uncle’s allowance back to the Philippines to help support my family there.) Those were days of fear, as I had to have my student visa status changed to immigrant status. I approached a judge who was sensitive to my plight—and I had just passed by licensure exam! My request was approved, and I found my first job as a nurse.
I moved to San Jose and became a staff nurse at San Jose Medical Center in 1968. In this first nursing job, I met my husband Robert Tomalinas and became an American citizen. We were married in 1971, and I was able to continue to support my family in the Philippines with my salary. After 5 years at San Jose Medical Center, I moved to Santa Teresa Hospital while it was being built. I became the evening supervisor.
In my first nursing jobs, I learned to advocate for patients and their families. I learned to teach by example. I loved my patients and their families, and most of them loved me back. I made friends that have lasted for years. During this time, my daughter, Maria, was born in 1974 and then my son, Robert, in 1977. I remained at home until my son was almost 3 years old, and then worked as a float nurse for 2 days a week. My husband and I were very involved with our children. We volunteered on field trips, school plays, and the parent teacher association, where I served twice as president. Eventually, my mother finally joined us from the Philippines followed by my siblings. As an extended family, we took camping trips and went on retreats. Life was wonderful!
What happened next still haunts me, and I ask myself what I neglected to do or say. When my daughter turned 13, our family spiraled into a type of hell. My daughter became involved with “party crews.” Party crews have been called the “junior varsity” of street gangs (Walbert, 2009). My daughter used drugs, ran away, and had crises at school—even failing physical education. My husband and I were caught off-guard, and we clung to each other and our son for strength and hope. My daughter said that she would attend classes stoned. She came home sober but kept to her room. Did her teachers notice? Did they care? She ran away for two days. She called home in the middle of the night to say she was okay but wouldn’t reveal where she was. She was injured at a party and was arrested.
The Struggle to Find Help
We were educated and articulate, but we struggled to find help for my daughter. We reached out to one organization that offered mental health services but no drug rehabilitation. Another organization provided rehabilitation but no mental health services. One organization would not admit patients on weekends, and another required that my daughter be arrested before they would help.
We sold our rental property (our only savings) to pay for my daughter to attend a 28-day program at a drug rehabilitation center; it cost us $18,000. We attended family therapy, and she had individual therapy at $97 per hour for 1 year. Most of this was not covered by insurance. Everything was hard. Her high school objected to her leaving school for therapy appointments, and the therapists had inflexible schedules. I maxed out credit cards for therapy and used them to keep my daughter busy shopping. I would do anything to keep her away from her “crew.” I took on the school to create an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for her. My clergy became a critical source of support. And I prayed. One night we received a gift of grace—and my daughter’s life changed dramatically. We got our daughter back, and her recovery since then has been a wonder. She caught up in school and graduated with her class (but at a different school in the district).
We Got Help—But What About Others?
I believed I had been given a gift from God, but I was concerned about other families dealing with the same problems we had. I worried about other parents who did not have a house to sell to pay for care, who did not speak English, or who did not have the knowledge to seek help. The gift I received propelled me to help others.
I found a group called People Acting in Community Together (PACT), a faith-based community organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods and families and to develop community leaders. In the 1980s, San Jose was besieged by drugs, gangs, and violence. The usual solutions (i.e., jails and police) were not effective. The youth involved in party crews and gangs were not receptive to professional psychologists deployed in the neighborhoods. PACT worked to get resources for a concentrated effort and a controversial solution: hiring ex-gang members who had turned their lives around to reach high-risk youth.
San Jose created the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force to convene all the service providers and to get the means to fund the work. County and city government, police, probation, schools, non-profit community organizations, faith organizations, and community representatives came to work together. The collaboration resulted in culturally-specific programs and an attempt at integrating services no one had ever done before. PACT supported citizens to empower themselves. A parents’ safety council was organized to help and oversee the implementation of school safety plans and a new crisis response plan. The San Jose Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force set out to save our youth and families—to heal a community one person at a time. Residents took up their responsibility and took action on behalf of others by the thousands.
I became one of the voices demanding accountability and compassion. These amazing events plunged me into the world of politics, committees, and commissions. I fought for tobacco settlement dollars to fund health insurance for children age 0 to 18 years. A partnership between county-city and private donations and foundations was formed to help families who were not eligible for medical care. I became a member of the First 5 Commission of Santa Clara County and helped shape the First 5 Santa Clara County Community Investment Plan. It funds neonatal intensive care units, Power of Preschool (an early care and education program that includes developmental assessment) and all other services First 5 offers, and advocates who steer families in court to appropriate services and bring dental care and medical referrals to the hearts of the neighborhood. I worked to encourage the stakeholders to integrate and align their services so they can be delivered in an appropriate and timely manner. I spoke to many people; the relationship of stakeholders must be strong and built on trust to foster such collaboration. I advocated for appreciation of our diversity, including the whole family in treatment and access to care without discrimination. I visited families, talked to groups, and cried with parents who are victims of violence. I also wept with many children who have lost hope because their parents find it difficult to forgive.
Presently I am working with the Mayor of San Jose’s Gang Prevention Task Force to formalize a community-response protocol. This will bring help to the area of a violent incident— to both the victims and the perpetrators. We have a transition center that will reduce the amount of time an arrested youth is offered help and/or get them to court within 4 weeks instead of 12 weeks. Many people noticed my work and urged me to run for political office. I declined because I wish to advocate for any issue I wish. My loyalty is to my community and to God.
Opportunities for Advocacy
A few years ago, we learned that my son is gay. Though often our culture is intolerant of homosexuality, our extended family rallied around us. They accepted and continue to love my son, and he and his sister remain very good friends. But I have concern for my son’s welfare, and it presents another opportunity to advocate for a group of people who are often discriminated against. My husband passed away in 2001, and I lost my “bridge over troubled waters.” For a short time, I wondered if I was strong enough to continue my mission. My faith became a beacon again as I picked up the pieces of my shattered heart and decided to be stronger. I accepted my vulnerability and leave myself as open as possible to share the pain of others—and then channel it to action.
My community efforts earned me many awards. They are all appreciated, but it often humbles me, for I do not act alone. The recognitions are valuable because they often lead to other opportunities to serve. My work with the schools brought me the Volunteer of the Year Award. I was awarded the Community Warrior from the Asian Pacific Democratic Club (although I am not a registered Democrat), the Community Star Award from Asian Americans for Community Involvement, the Martin Luther King Good Neighbor Award, an Outstanding Woman of Silicon Valley Award, California Assembly Woman of the Year, one for 100 Most Influential Women in the United States, the California Wellness Foundation’s Peace Prize, and others (Figures 96-1 and 96-2).