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Torres: My mother is survived by the legacy of community service

Editor’s Note: This is a part of a collection of stories SDNN will publish throughout the month of March to celebrate Women’s History Month. Join us as we recognize Women’s History Month by sending in your stories too and checking SDNN every day for stories from other women in our region. Happy Women’s History Month!

My mother was 12 years old when the “Hukbalahap” (aka “Huk”, Philippine guerrillas) came to her house and led the whole family away, except for her and a younger brother. They had hidden in the China cabinet. When the family came back, her father was not among them. Her mother, my “lola” (grandmother), explained that her father was made to dig his own grave before he was killed. His crime was feeding the hungry, including those who the Huk’s deemed enemies. My “lolo” (grandfather) fed anyone who was hungry. It did not matter who they were. He only cared about feeding them. This moment in time stuck with my mother and grew into a “community calling”.

My mother, Rosie F. DeLeon, began serving others – first as a Red Cross instructor, then as a high school teacher. She became the Filipino community social coordinator in every place our family settled during my father’s career in the U.S. Navy – Washington, Alaska, Cuba, Virginia, Hawaii and California. She volunteered at our schools in order to be closer to us. In the mid 1970s she volunteered to become a community outreach worker for a fledging Filipino American non-profit organization, the first of its kind in the very new community of Mira Mesa. She later became the founding social services director of that organization, Operation Samahan Medical Clinic in Mira Mesa.

When Operation Samahan moved their Erma Road office to the newly built medical and office complex on the corner of Mira Mesa Boulevard and Camino Ruiz, walls dividing the rooms had to be built and painted. She somehow talked my sisters and me into volunteering our weekend away by painting the walls of the clinic. It wasn’t the first time she had volunteered us without prior notice. She volunteered us to assist with Oktoberfest fundraisers at Good Shepherd’s Church so that the “real” church could be built. She volunteered us to work special events for the then newly formed Fil Am of North County, so that we would get to know our community more. She volunteered us dance hula at Fil Am Seniors functions so that we could serve our elderly. She volunteered us to work Mira Mesa holiday events so we would know the “true meaning” of Christmas. I don’t know about “true meanings”, but it seemed we were being “volunteered” quite a bit!

As a teenager and young adult, I was annoyed at my mother’s constant offer to volunteer my sisters and me. I thought, “Slaves! My mom thinks we’re her slaves! I’ll never do this to my kids!”

Fast forward to 1990, my newborn daughter Ariana accompanies me to work at Mira Mesa High School. She becomes the visual aid for my presentation to the early childhood development class. I “volunteered” her. As my daughter grew, I “volunteered” her to work community fundraisers, collect recyclables and used clothing for youth programs, luncheons for community leaders, and presentations for gang and drug prevention. My daughter, to her credit, never complained. She, instead, invited her friends to volunteer with her.

It wasn’t until my daughter’s senior year in high school that I understood what my mother was doing by “volunteering” us all those years before. She was silently mentoring us through action and not words – just as her father had done. I unconsciously mirrored my mother’s actions by “volunteering” my daughter who passed the silent mentoring to others.

On the morning of January 20, 2009 – presidential inauguration day – my mother passed away after a short battle with stomach cancer. She is survived by her husband, three daughters, and three grandchildren. She is survived by the many Mira Mesa and other North County groups and organizations she founded or co-founded. She is survived by the thousands of people she assisted as a volunteer and the social services director. She is survived by the Mira Mesa offices she helped erect. More importantly, she is survived by the legacy of community service mentoring – two generations forward.

Alicia DeLeon-Torres is a Commissioner for the City of San Diego’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, and the National Director for National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse.