By Jeff Kelly Lowenstein/Hoy — Light gleams off the wooden floor in the gymnasium at Judah Christian School in Champaign.
The squeaking of sneakers is followed by cheers when the volleyball is spiked, lands out of bounds or is served under the net. On one court, Angela, a 10-year-old with a black ponytail and a white t-shirt, keeps score with a black marker. On the other court, players from ages 13 to 55 play in the shadow of the purple scoreboard with gold letters.
On a nearby stage, a crowd composed primarily of women sits on front of a table filled with food ranging from Filipino staples like noodles and hot sauce to American standards like pizza, cookies and soda. The crowd watches with interest while also tending to some of the young children running around the stage and the gym.
To outsiders, the weekly gathering may seem just like a regular volleyball game.
But to Champaign’s steadily growing but little-chronicled Filipino community, it represents more.
It’s a place of gathering, a chance to gain strength in the shared experience of adjusting to life in a new country while retaining ties to home, and a place to bolster the ranks of, and integrate new members into, the community.
Hideliza Magno remembers when it was different.
She has been in the country since 1980 and moved to Champaign after a stint in Chicago.
At that point, there were far fewer Filipinos in the area. Those who were there tended to be students.
“There were three of us,” Magno said. “At first, I was excited. But then I was lonely to be away from my family.”
The loneliness lasted about six months.
Zipura Matias arrived from the Bicol region as a student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1985. She also remembers the early years, when she and Magno raised their children together.
In 1996 Swann Special Care Center, a facility for severely mentally and physically delayed children and adults, brought over 16 nurses from the Philippines to work and live in the area for one year. Matias explained that the initiative was taken to reduce staff turnover, which had been a major problem.
The effort succeeded.
Many of the nurses stayed, and some of them started to bring other family members over.
In contrast to manufacturing, which saw a 23 percent drop in the number of jobs in a 15-county area in Central Illinois from 2003 to 2010, falling from 52,618 to 40,516 jobs, the health care and social assistance industry grew 15 percent to a total of 38,531 jobs, according to an Hoy analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Within that field, Asian workers were a higher percentage in 2009 than their share of the working age population.
During the early part of last decade, Carle Foundation Hospital engaged in a similar, more extensive program, according to Lilia Peters, a retired nurse who consulted with the hospital. She explained later that the hospital sponsored 45 nurses to come from their homeland to the United States and the Champaign area.
The community also received a boost in 2003, with the opening of Maligaya’s, a grocery store that caters explicitly to Filipino customers. Eric Maligaya, the owner’s son, estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the customers are Filipinos looking for meats like adodo and menudo, steamed buns or siapao, sweet fruits or coconut milk.
Maligaya’s is an all-purpose store-one can see in the windows adds for snow removal and travel to tropical islands-and, for the community, it’s a hub of information. Retired banker Arturo Maligaya, the store’s owner and a handyman, said that was his intention.
The store’s front windows hearken to its distant homeland, with posters of tropical beaches beckoning the view to visit Subic or others of the more than 7,000 islands that make up the country.
The image of the islands is well-taken, as much of the community activity in Champaign is oriented toward supporting people back home, according to Roland Acosta, past president of the Filipino-American Association and a respiratory therapist. The association was officially formed in 2008, but members of the community had been sending goods back to the Philippines for at least five years before that.
Ronald Peters, a retired professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and one of the first 500 Peace Corps volunteers in 1961, said later that he works to ensure that newly naturalized citizens are registered to vote. But he added that there is not yet much active political activity on the local level within the community.
The community does have annual religious observances, if not a regular priest. In December, community members observe Simbang Gabi, a series a series of nine masses in December that ends the day before Christmas.
Originally celebrated in people’s homes, in 2009 the services expanded to St. John’s Catholic Chapel and St. Matthew, according to Andrea Cortez, the community’s unofficial spiritual leader. In 2010 and 2011, masses were held in four other area chapels in Champaign, Urbana and Danville, she said.
Cortez and her husband have not yet hosted a wedding in their Champaign home, but have done just about everything else. Baptisms. Nine-day prayers for deceased friends. The Santo Nino fiesta honoring the holy child that is celebrated the third Saturday of January. The novena for Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
All of these elements give the community an ascending, if not surging, feel.
But it also has some of the challenges associated with many other immigrant groups.
A number of community members grapple with loneliness.
While there is a critical mass of people in Champaign, others in places like Effingham that have smaller numbers of Filipinos can feel isolated, Acosta said.
Dunny Romero, a retired teacher who came to work with the clients at Swann, was lonely for her first year in the country until her children joined her.
Lured by the prospect of making more money, she said she did not realize how physically demanding her new job would turn out to be.
“We didn’t know how hard the work is,” Romero said. “It’s the dollar, you know.”
Others expressed concern about the children born and raised in the United States building and retaining a connection to their family’s native country. Speaking in Judah Christian’s parking lot, Rosanna Fabi, assistant director of nursing at an area nursing home, said her son no longer desires the traditional Filipino food. Instead he prefers pizza and burgers.
And there also are a number of women end up in abusive relationships after having come to the United States following months of “pen pal” correspondence with men who can be as much as 30 years older, according to Lilia Peters.
Despite these difficulties, Ronald Peters expressed optimism about the community’s growth and future direction.
“It’s hit critical mass,” he said. “It’s especially encouraging to see the children coming. The next generation is really going to be something.”