Like the island nation he calls home, Angelo Villagomez has his feet and his future planted in two worlds. Born here in 1978, Angelo left for Massachusetts at age 3, spent a year in England when he was 13 (the family indulged his mom’s adventurous streak), went to high school in Florida, graduated from the University of Richmond in 2004 with a bachelor's degree in Biology, and then got a second degree in Environmental Policy. In November 2005, he went to Japan on his own adventure.
It was shortly afterwards, in December 2005, that he got the call that brought him back to Saipan to say a final earthly goodbye to his father. Then, after a brief return to Japan, he moved back to Saipan in March 2006.
"You can either call me a Chamorro-born American, or an American-educated Chamorro," he says of his unique perspective. It’s this straddling of two cultures, two sets of values, two worldviews, two life experiences that makes him uniquely qualified to pursue his passion and share his vision.
"The cultural lines of identity and separation that others may see are invisible to me," he adds. "But some things ARE visible. Like many people who spend enough time off island, I’m able to recognize some of our shortcomings from a different perspective. I’m not the first or the only person to see the need for change. It’s just my special calling to do something about it."
And that he has! Angelo works for the Marianas Resource Conservation and Development Council to organize volunteers to help with tree plantings, water quality and dive surveys. In addition, his volunteer participation as the energy behind the restoration committee of the "Beautify CNMI!" coalition has earned him tremendous public support and recognition. He, along with volunteers and fellow visionaries Tina Sablan, Cinta Kaipat, Reina Camacho and Steve Hiney form the heart and soul of this unique group-defined on their website as "a coalition of concerned citizens, private groups, and government entities united to enhance the CNMI’s natural beauty and foster community pride in its residents and visitors." (www.BeautifyCNMI.com)
It was at a meeting in June 2006, at what was then called The Beautification Group, which had started meeting a month earlier, that Angelo lit a fire of forward motion and set a new pace with his "do it now" approach to getting things done.
"At the meeting, we were all planning a tree planting project. I got an idea, so I said, ’Who’s got four trees? I mean, like, right now? Parks & Recreation had the trees. Ok, who’s got some shovels? No one had shovels, so I got them. Public Works said they’d dig the holes. We painted them gold, organized a little media event on short notice and we went out four days later, and planted four trees! The next meeting-same thing: ’Who’s got more trees?’ This time, P&R had seven, and we did it again...and it just snowballed from there."
His commitment, steeped in the character-building experience of a presidential campaign trail in the U.S., which honed an already innate persistence, brought and infused a new energy to the group. Since then, that small group of core volunteers, which eventually became Beautify CNMI has achieved an impressive record:
- 2,000 trees have been planted since June;
- 260,000 lbs of recyclable material have been collected in just two months;
- 3,380 volunteers showed up for the islandwide cleanup on Oct 20.
"Think about it," Angelo explains. "One in 20 people who call Saipan home cared enough to stop the normal routines of their lives to come out in the hot sun for the single purpose of making this a cleaner place to live and raise their families."
That IS impressive. Beautify CNMI is galvanizing the community in a way that’s never been done. Chamorros, Carolinians, Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and many others are all uniting every week with a common goal. (Imagine. No, better yet, come out and experience it!).
Indeed, veterans of volunteerism, pundits of public activism, and equally important givers of grants are likewise impressed.
"As a non-profit coalition, we depend heavily on grants from foundations and the federal government to help us in what we do," Angelo explains. "But the reality is that ’money follows success’ in the grant world, and we are 'successful' since we have overwhelming public support for what we do, an unlimited supply of volunteer labor, and people who are coming out and working together. Foundations love to see people working together. That translates into money in the form of federal grants which will help us promote and grow environmental stewardship in the CNMI."
"Our environment is our economy," Angelo explains. "Who we are has been defined by our environment. We can afford to have and feed big families because of our geography and access to fishing.
"What we do is also defined by our environment. We can use tourism as an economic booster because of the beauty of our natural environment."
"Based on the impact you’ve been having, it’s hard to believe that you’ve been here as an adult just since March of 2006,” I remark. “So what brought you back to Saipan?"
"Oh, without a doubt, chicken kelaguen! That’s the number one reason I came back!" he jokes. "The truth is Saipan is magical for me. My childhood memories are here. I can remember going fishing here. Just being here brings back those memories. If I go someplace, knowing that my father was here, and his father was here, it’s a powerful feeling."
With a tear in his eye, Angelo speaks nostalgically about his passion for Saipan, the environment and its preservation, and of other childhood memories that fuel his passion.
"I’ve always loved nature," he recalls. "There was nothing greater...nothing greater than being out there with my dad, fishing, hiking...."
As the power of the feeling overcomes him, the thought is left unfinished, and unheard-at least for those who listen only with ears. But for those who read men’s hearts and souls, one immediately senses that Angelo’s mission to honor the CNMI’s beauty is about his tribute to the land of his birth, and perhaps the fulfillment of a personal promise-one that he uses to maintain a deeper private connection to a past filled with memories that a son and his father shared.
“What's the greatest lesson you've learned from this?” I ask.
"That you can’t do it alone," he immediately replies. "From day one this has been a team effort. At Beautify CNMI!, we always say everyone in the community is a member, they just don’t know it yet. I’ve had the pleasure of working with people who are competent, and in all honesty, usually exceed expectations."
“And what's the next step?”
"Well, we’ll continue our projects, do more beach cleanups, anti-littering, tree planting, but the next big long-term project is The Micronesian Challenge. (The Challenge, first proposed by Palau President Tommy Remengasau Jr., and taken up by the leaders of the CNMI, Guam, Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, is to "effectively conserve 30 percent of "near shore" resources, 20 percent of forest resources" by 2020.) Beautify CNMI!’s mission is to get the vision of this challenge into the heads and hearts of the people of the CNMI.
It’s a vision that mirrors and complements Angelo’s own-for Angelo’s vision for the CNMI includes more than the necessary first steps of clearing the streets of trash and repainting buildings and bus stops. It’s a vision national in its implementation, regional in its overall effect, global in its long-term impact, and universal in its respect of our shared human experience.
"We have more coral reefs than any place in the world,” Angelo offers. “So when this challenge is successful we will have protected larger swaths of reef than any other. We can be the shining star of Micronesia in that regard. The CNMI can, should and will be THE place for people to witness and experience coral reef conservation in action. The CNMI also can, should and will be known for industries, opportunities and based on our natural resources.
“So, when a Chamorro starts a locally-owned dive shop here on island, when a Carolinian starts a touring and trekking company, when a young person of any background starts a website design business, or some sort of Internet-based product and service for tourists who’ve come to experience our environment and culture, it will be because we've taken the time to preserve and beautify it. We will become known for the best aspects of our culture, traditions and natural resources. So that when a child is asked by any visitor what are we known for, she can say
1. latte stones
2. traditional navigation
3. Coral reefs...
...and, of course, chicken kelaguen!
“My grandfather was a fisherman. My father, even though he was a judge, still caught fish off the reef to feed his family. And I’m employed by an organization that focuses on reef conservation. So, in effect, I’m still making a living through the coral reef. I’m just doing it in a different way.
“There’s more than one type of activity that can be supported by the existence of our reefs and natural resources.”
And that is why this week’s Saipanpreneur column is a profile in passion that is paving the way for employees to get jobs, entrepreneurs to launch profitable businesses, and for children not yet born, the children of today who will be their parents, and the grandparents they will become tomorrow to enjoy the beauty and benefits from the foundation being laid today by average citizens.
"So, what’s the one thing you want people to know? I asked Angelo finally.
"Well, I’d like people to remember that it’s not the government’s responsibility. This is OUR home. It’s my home and YOUR home. It’s only 3 miles by 17 miles and if WE don’t take care of it, no one is going to take care of it for us. Whether it’s picking up trash or improving our economy, we can’t wait for the federal government. What I love about Beautify CNMI! is that it embodies a traditionally independent spirit and a belief that we are self-sufficient and that we CAN do it ourselves. Help from the outside can supplement, but we really should strive to be helping ourselves. The success of Beautify CNMI! shows that we’re ready and that we ARE doing it!"
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I hope you enjoyed today's profile. Now you'll understand why when I thought about launching a website to capture the passion of those who proudly call the CNMI home, Angelo was the first person I contacted. Read Angelo's and other profiles at www.WeLoveSaipan.com . And keep up-to-date with Beautify CNMI's events and volunteer projects at www.BeautifyCNMI.com
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Until next week, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!
(Walt F.J. Goodridge is author of 12 books including Turn Your Passion Into Profit. Walt offers coaching and workshops to help people pursue and profit from their passions. Originally from the island of Jamaica, Walt has grown several successful businesses in the US, and now makes his home here in Saipan. To learn more about the Saipanpreneur Project and Walt's philosophy and formula visit www.saipanpreneur.com and www.passionprofit.com. Send article suggestions, entrepreneur nominations and feedback about this article to email@example.com.)