A Stop In Warren
From across the Pacific to the Fourth Little Pig
In 1968, a high school senior crossed the Pacific Ocean to spend a year in a strange land.
That student was Carmelita Cochingo of the Philippines. The strange land was Warren.
There may not have been talking mythical beasts, but her experience that year was so profound, Carmelita now refers to that time as her Narnia year.
Now, Carmelita Cochingo Ballesteros is a doctor of philosophy. She was a professor, has been the editor of a series of textbooks in English, and written a children’s book.
Social media lets Carmelita stay in touch with her Warren friends — who knew her as “Charm” back in high school — and reach out to a reporter who wrote something of interest to her.
Back then, Charm was much like any other high school student.
Carmelita volunteered for an exchange program at Nueva Ecija High School. The school was part of the American Field Service (AFS) International Exchange Program. Her school had hosted American students. She was eager to make the trip the other way.
In the Philippines, English is the official second language, so there was no language barrier.
She wrote to the family of David Potter.
“During the matching stage, I exchanged snail mail with Rebecca Potter, my foster sister-to-be,” Carmelita said. “I suppose we hit it off and so AFS placed me with her family. Her parents were David and Marian Potter.”
“Rebecca was the only child living with the Potters when I came. Her brother Andy and sister Pamela were already in college.”
“I was very excited. Thrilled,” she said. “I felt confident that my foster family was going to be a warm and welcoming one. And they were.”
“We had an ordinary, peaceful family life,” Carmelita said. “It was stress-free.”
“My foster mother Marian was a children’s book writer,” she said. “She also wrote editorials for the radio station that my foster father David owned and managed.”
They lived close to the school, on Beaty Street, but it was unusual that Rebecca and Carmelita walked.
“Dad David religiously took Rebecca and me to Warren Area High every morning in his cool Mercedes,” she said. “I loved Warren Area High School on the hill.”
Back home, Carmelita had to wear a uniform. At WAHS, “I enjoyed wearing blouses, skirts, and sweaters of different colors and designs,” she said. “I enjoyed mix-matching my blouses and skirts.”
She also had more choices in the classes she could take. “Only English and History were required. The rest of the subjects could be chosen by students,” she said. “I chose Problems of Democracy, Spanish, Russian, and Public Speaking.”
Carmelita was involved in many school activities — including, of course, AFS. The yearbook lists her as a member of the Homecoming Court, Model United Nations, Russian Club, Spanish Club, Student Council, Thespians Club, and National Honor Society.
School dances were nothing new. “We also have the junior-senior prom in the Philippines,” she said. “So I had two proms — one in 1968 in the Philippines and another one in 1969 in the USA. My escort was Joe Kavinski.”
Homecoming was new.
“There was a motorcade around town and I joined it as the exchange student of the year,” Carmelita said. “My escort was Tony Scalise. I remember that we rode in a top-down red car. In the evening, there was a dance and my escort was Jeffrey Fino.”
Not long after that, Carmelita experienced her first snowflake. Snow was not a part of life in the Philippines and it was a marvel for her… “a dream come true.” But after the initial experience, she was over it.
“The truth is that I did not like winter at all,” she said. “I did not like feeling cold all the time even under a thermal blanket, even while wearing several layers of clothes and a heavy winter coat, even while wearing boots, gloves, and a bonnet. There are only two seasons in the Philippines: dry and rainy.”
Her native land had the edge over Warren in winter, “but I loved autumn,” she said. “I loved the scent of autumn leaves. I loved the radiant colors of red, brown, and yellow. I loved the crunch of the leaves under my shoes. And I was ecstatic when I saw the first tiny leaves of spring!”
Then, there was the food.
“Rice is the staple food in the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries,” Carmelita said. “In contrast, an American meal consists of bread, meat, and veggies. And ice cream for dessert!”
“In the Philippines, meat dishes are usually cooked with plenty of sour broth and vegetables,” she said. “This dish with sour broth is called sinigang. The meat could be chicken, pork, beef, or seafood.”
In addition to her host family, Carmelita remembers several families and individuals in the Warren community.
“The McTavish Family… as a Catholic family, they took me with them to church on Sundays and other church holidays,” she said. “I would love to re-connect with them very much. I’ve inquired about them but I’ve had no luck so far.”
“Laura Harper took care of me as regards all requirements of AFS,” Carmelita said. “She took me to all AFS monthly meetings and weekend meet-ups with other families. Every month, I had a new weekend foster family for an overnight stay in neighboring towns.”
“Laura Harper and her family were friends of the Potters,” she said. “I got to know them quite well. We’d visit and share meals every so often.”
Carmelita saw more of the region with her host family.
“My foster parents, David and Marian, took Rebecca on a road trip to different universities,
she said. “She was looking for the best university for herself. David and Marian took me along as well as Rebecca’s best friend, Christine Lundahl.”
After after a career in education, Carmelita is warming up to history and she remembers her teacher at Warren. “I never liked history. Only in old age am I beginning to appreciate history,” she said. “But Mr. (Robert) Fey made history so interesting and intriguing.. Besides, Mr. Fey was a cool, even-tempered, and well-mannered gentleman. He never sat on the table while in class.”
At the end of the year, graduation was a time of more than the usual good-byes for Carmelita. “I wore a white toga; I suppose everyone did,” she said. “I remember feeling joyful! It was a merry chaos of congratulations, which university are you going to, take care, etc.”
For a month after the school year, Carmelita was part of a group of AFS students who toured major U.S. Cities. “We’d stop by in one town or city, spend time with some families and schoolchildren, and stay overnight with different families,” she said. “Now that I look back at this summer tour, I realize what a gigantic event it was and how much organizational skill and people skills it took!”
Her time in the United States was not all wonder and positive new experiences.
“It opened my eyes to racial discrimination. I’ve read about it, but never really understood it,” Carmelita said. “I was well-accepted and well-treated in Warren. But while traveling outside Warren, I saw evidence of racial discrimination.”
The AFS theme — ‘Harmony in Diversity’ — “became real for me,” she said. “The AFS exchange students represented different countries and cultures. I learned how to respect other peoples’ skin color, culture, history, and dreams.”
She returned to the Philippines, attended the University of Santo Tomas majoring in literature. She became a professor.
“My life after retiring from the academe is still related to education,” she said. “Since 2016, I’ve been the project director and editor of an English textbook series, Grades 1-10. It is published and distributed by REX Book Store, Inc.”
“What makes my textbook project unique from those of other publishers?” she said. “The title of the series is ILLUMINATE: English for the Mind and Heart. It combines lessons in language and literature. Language — viewing, listening, speaking, reading, and writing — is infused with soft skills from literary selections. Soft skills refer to emotions, relationships, values, dreams, etc. Most importantly, the entire series is anchored on the Brain-Based Learning (BBL) Approach. It is a combination of education, psychology, and neuroscience. In short, BBL advocates ‘joy in learning.’ So in our Illuminate lessons, we always do our best to make the learners feel valued and we make the lessons clear (illuminating) and enjoyable.”
And, she has written The Fourth Little Pig.
“I wrote and published the hard copy in 2004,” she said. “It was a family self-publishing experiment.”
“My grandson loved the story of the Three Little Pigs, so I called him the fourth little pig,” she said. “It gave me a vague idea for a children’s book. The idea took shape one day when a colleague of mine mentioned that there was a dearth of children’s books which focus on the differently-abled. I was teaching in Taiwan back then and I had a colleague who was differently-abled. She was my model for Josephine, the Missy Little Pig who helped Gorgy, the fourth little pig, make his dream home come true.”
“After that conversation with my colleague, my fingers flew on my laptop keyboard the whole night,” she said. “I had the complete draft the next morning.”
The writing didn’t take long. The publishing did. “The family self-publishing experiment failed due to lack of financial resources,” Carmelita said. “I forgot about The Fourth Little Pig till the COVID-19 pandemic forced me and the entire world to stay at home.”
“Suddenly, Gorgy, the fourth little pig, and Josephine were knocking on my door,” she said. “With little means, publishing hard copies was next to impossible. The solution? eBooks! Thanks to technical help from my grandson, I succeeded in self-publishing on Amazon and Kobo last December 2020.”
A few weeks ago, Carmelita was browsing the internet, keeping an eye on Warren, when she ran into a story about a group who raised money to give thank you gifts to front-line workers.
She decided to reach out to the author. He proposed that she share some of her memories of Warren and posed a list of questions.
“Answering your questions has made my memories ever so vivid,” she said. “I am and have been eternally grateful for the ‘Narnia’ year that I spent in Warren, PA — my second hometown!”