Winning the title of Mrs. Philippines America 2019 was not about wearing the crown for New Paltz resident, Cecille Castillon-Weinstein, 31. Recruited for the pageant by a board member of one of its sponsoring organizations – the nonprofit 501 (c) (3) Red Poinsettia Charitable Foundation, Inc. and Philippine Hearts and Hopes Society, Inc. – she signed on after learning it would be for a good cause: humanitarian missions here and abroad, providing food, clothing, shelter, school supplies and medical services to those in need. As the winner of the competition, Castillon-Weinstein earned the right to join a humanitarian mission in the Philippines in February of 2020 as well as “seed money” to donate to an existing organization or use to start her own charitable project.
The former registered nurse and current entrepreneur competed for the title this past July along with eight other women; each of whom, she says, are as involved in their individual charitable endeavors and as passionate about their causes as she is. “Any one of us could easily have won,” she says. In fact, Castillon-Weinstein notes, she considered the pageant to be not so much a competition as a participatory event that allowed her to become allied with the other entrants, who now plan to work together in the future on a cause dear to each of them: cancer awareness. Her one-year reign will take her to events throughout the Northeast and to Thailand and the Philippines.
Castillon-Weinstein’s previous pageant experience is limited to a stint in 2003, at age 15, as “Miss Tourism,” representing her municipality of Sto. Niño in South Cotabato, a province in Mindanao, Philippines. As “Mutya ng Turismo,” she served as an ambassador of goodwill and endeavored to promote the culture, arts and tourism of the region. “There’s something about that role that really stuck with me,” she says. “Because even all these years later, if I have the opportunity to talk to someone about my hometown, I do it. It’s so beautiful. And the town I was born in, Lake Sebu, is actually very similar to New Paltz, in concept; Lake Sebu is also both a mountain and a lake town. I live in the village here, and you can drive to the mountains in 10-15 minutes, so it feels a little like home, even though it’s 8,000 miles away!”
Castillon-Weinstein has lived in New Paltz since 2013, moving here to marry a local man, Ian Weinstein. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz with a degree in psychology, he works for the nonprofit Independent Living, Inc., which provides services to people with disabilities. He proposed to his future wife in 2013 while they vacationed in Bangkok, and six months later she came to the U.S. on a fiancée visa.
Castillon-Weinstein has immersed herself in the New Paltz community since moving here, joining the Wisdom of Women Committee of the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce and Hudson Valley Women in Business. She founded her own business, CASTILLON Lifestyle + Concierge, which provides a range of services for busy families and professionals in Ulster County. Her office is in the “One Epic Place” building on Main Street.
The concierge services include home and errand management, personal shopping, event organizing and even wardrobe editing; basically providing people help with any task that allows them time to maintain both their home and work lives. Based on the Filipino concept of “bayanihan,” which Castillon-Weinstein explains is “a traditional system of mutual assistance in which the members of a community work together, helping neighbors to accomplish a difficult task and thus lessening the workload,” it’s a principle that is part of her core values, she says. “I always imagine my mother; she had her own struggles – although she made it look easy – but at the same time, with this solid network of people around her, it seemed so much easier.”
The concierge business is really an extension of her former career as a nurse, she adds, a redirection of her capacity for caring for people.
Castillon-Weinstein is also a founding member and current secretary of the Highland chapter of Helping Hands FilAm, Inc., a nonprofit organization that among its numerous endeavors supports children’s education. Earlier this year, she served as event organizer for a charity gala under the group’s sponsorship that raised $6,500 for the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie and the T’boli School of Indigenous Knowledge and Tradition (SIKAT) in her native South Cotabato, the latter enabling the addition of a much-needed roof to one building.
In 2016, before joining the organization, Castillon-Weinstein launched her own initiative, “Give a Book, Give a Chance,” an effort designed to expand access to reading materials for youth. A book drive held that year raised enough money to provide books to two elementary schools and one high school in the Philippines.
Her interest in supporting children’s education comes from her family background, she says, from which she realizes that she and her three siblings had much greater opportunities for advancement due to their parents’ education. “Because of the economic disparities in the Philippines, some of my relatives did not receive an education. But my parents did, and that provided us with much better opportunities,” she says. “Sometimes I almost feel ‘survivor’s guilt’ about it: they didn’t have much of a choice. But when I was young, my father would travel and bring home boxes of used books for us, donated by people in the States. He built a library in our home.”
The family didn’t have a TV until she was 12, and reading material was otherwise so scarce people would read the newspaper wrapped around the food they bought, she says. “So here I was at age 12-14, reading John Grisham. I was a young girl living in this rural, remote area of the Philippines and I learned so much about rural Mississippi, I could have lived there! I thought I was going to be a lawyer, like John Grisham.”
Castillon-Weinstein was valedictorian for her high school graduating class and she served as editor for her high school and college newspapers.
Her birthplace of Lake Sebu is “a very colorful community,” she says. Her parents went there to do social work before she was born. “The seed was planted in Lake Sebu for who I became,” she says today. “I feel like I flourished because of the love of the community that was given to me.”
For that reason, Castillon-Weinstein says she’d like to do something to give back. Lake Sebu has become known as “The Land of the Dreamweavers,” named for its indigenous workers in the tribal community of T’boli, who weave fabric in their waking hours said to be inspired by their dreams. The craft of weaving is a means for the T’boli tribe to make a living, but it is also a spiritual undertaking, from the conceptualization of the distinctive designs to the weaving process and how the finished product is treated.
When Castillon-Weinstein goes back to Lake Sebu to visit, she is often asked by the artisans, she says, if she knows anyone here in the U.S. who can buy their fabric. Having taken classes at the Fashion Institute in New York City and studied fashion merchandising and design, the now-New Paltz resident hopes to be able to foster a connection between her old home and her new. “A lot of people in New York are looking for traditional wear, and no one is filling that gap. As a concierge, what I do is connect people to the services they need, and business owners with clientele. This is the same thing.”
She says she’d also like to find a way to combine her community in the Philippines with her community here in the Hudson Valley through creating an opportunity for collaboration, not simply importing. “I’ve been thinking of this for years,” she says. “My community there needs to export to make money, but the American dilemma is that we’ve lost manufacturing in this country. I want to be able to help both of my communities.”
The cultural shock Castillon-Weinstein experienced in moving from the Philippines to New York is hard to imagine for one born here. She confirmed that it was a struggle, but it helped, she says, that she’s an optimist. “In the beginning, you’re torn between assimilating as fast as you can, but at the same time trying to preserve your own culture and traditions. It was really hard for me, but later on I figured out that I should highlight the beautiful culture and traditions that I got from where I’m from, find a way to incorporate that here, and also absorb all of the great things that America has to offer, such as the hardworking American people. I’m really impressed by them. When I go home, people ask me, ‘Are you an American now?’ I say, ‘No. I’m a true-blue New Yorker!’ And it’s true; I’m a New Yorker. Being here in the Hudson Valley, I really feel it in my blood that this is where I was meant to be.”