The daughter of Trinidad Agcaoili of Laoag, Ilocos Norte and George Summers of New Grand Chain, Illinois, Helen Brown was born in Manila where she lived until her high school years. Soon after her graduation from Manila Central High School her family moved to the United States and she enrolled at Pasadena Junior College. She eventually transferred to UCLA where she obtained a master's degree.
Like her father who started the public school system in Ilocos Norte, Helen chose a career in education. She taught at the Los Angeles Unified School District. As she came in contact with more and more Filipino American schoolchildren, she remembered her own experience when she was new to this country. She remembered her search for identity and the lack of available resources for those who wanted to know more about Filipino culture or history. Thus, she decided to lobby the school district to recognize, and to address, the special needs of Filipino American school children. Before long, she was also lobbying in the interest of Filipino American schoolteachers, seeking to increase their number and working for their promotion.
When Helen was a student at Pasadena Junior College trying to do a research paper on the Philippines, she discovered how little relevant material there was in the county and college libraries. Fortunately for her, her father had a library at home. When she worked at the Los Angeles Unified School District, she found that neither the teachers nor the students had access to adequate educational materials on the Philippines. She realized the importance of the library she inherited from her father, and she began to build on it by collecting books, pamphlets, newsletters, newspaper clippings, and even the souvenir programs given out during the annual balls of various Filipino organizations. In her mind, nothing was too insignificant when it came to preserving the social history of Filipinos in the United States. Her private library was well known in the school district. She became its primary resource person and spokesperson for Filipino related matters. She also conducted regular staff development classes for the district.
Upon her retirement from the LA Unified School District, Helen decided to bring her library to the community. Through the generosity of the Filipino Christian Church and with the help of her good friend, Roy Morales, the library collection was moved to a donated space in the church basement and christened with the name PARRAL (Pilipino American Reading Room and Library). PARRAL opened its doors to the public on October 13, 1985, with Helen as the sole librarian holding office two afternoons a week. Helen continued to give staff development workshops here for the LAUSD.
Before the year was up, discussions began on how to create a body that would ensure the continued existence of the library. Three years later, on August 16, 1988, Pamana Foundation was born -- a nonprofit public corporation whose assets consisted of the PARRAL collection and whose primary purpose was to support PARRAL and its projects and activities to stimulate interest in Filipino and Filipino American culture and history. It was envisioned that the library would be a central place for Filipiniana and Filipino American research materials. The incorporators were Helen Brown, Tania Azores, Brad Bagasao, and Ming Menez.
The first Filipino American community library of its kind in the United States, PARRAL quickly gained recognition beyond the boundaries of Southern California. Even graduate students from out-of-state came to PARRAL to do their research. Local student groups made the library one of their stops on their Filipino Town tours. Other individuals and groups went to PARRAL to do personal research for their projects. A monthly public program series was also in place at the library.
After nine years at the Filipino Christian Church, PARRAL was moved to Luzon Plaza in March of 1994 in an effort to provide better visibility and accessibility. However, this move meant that the library would now have to pay rent. Generous as ever. Helen's birthday celebration that year was a fundraiser for the library. Throughout the six years that PARRAL was at Luzon Plaza, its main support came from Helen Brown, the Board Members, and their friends. This was a testament to the strength of, and belief in, Helen's vision -- that people were willing to give of their time and money to keep the library open for the community.
In January 2000, PARRAL was relocated to the old offices of SIPA on Temple Street. It was also renamed simply as Filipino American Library. Likewise, Pamana Foundation was renamed Filipino American Heritage Institute. Helen Brown officially retired from the board in 1999. In recognition of her love of children and of her role as the founder of the library the Children's Section of the Filipino American Library has been named in her honor.
Helen Brown now lives at the Sunrise Assisted Living Residence in Hermosa Beach. But her mind and heart are still with the library. And her legacy will always continue in the hearts and minds of those who use the library.
As our national hero, Jose Rizal, used his pen to influence the hearts and minds of his people, Helen Brown's vision is to have the library open people's hearts and minds to the beauty, the truth, and the honor of being Filipino or Filipino American.
by: Professor Tania Azores