Divina Telan-Robillard: A Tireless Visionary

Written by: Maita Milalos

It is hard to miss Divina in major Fil-Am community events in Honolulu. If she is not manning the microphone as a formal host or a party game coordinator, she is busy working behind the scenes planning and coordinating events; shuttling folks and props to and from venues; or helping arrange or pack up after each social event.

Her sense of humor is legendary. Her wisecracks, sometimes with green undertones, leave her listeners laughing their heads off. Even the jaded would have to admit that there is never a dull moment with her. She is the life of the party.

Divina Telan-Robillard is an indefatigable source of ideas, enthusiasm, and energy. She is a go-getter who can work with anybody to make things happen.

In the words of Dr. Belinda Aquino, a fellow alumni and past Director of the Center for Philippine Studies at the University of Hawaii,

“She is very spontaneous, instinctive and a pro-active leader of the pack. She can think creatively and is just as quick to implement plans that have been agreed upon.”

In fact, the "Mahalo, U.P. Endowment Fund Campaign" organized by the University of the Philippines Alumni Association of Hawaii (UPAAH) will always be associated with Divina. This initiative raised $36,000 to help finance the professional and leadership development of the University’s faculty members and promising students. It was a successful collective effort of UPAAH.

From Cagayan to Hawaii With Love

Divina hails from the Cagayan Valley region in the northeast of Luzon. The eldest in a brood of five, she already took it upon herself to take care of her brothers and sisters. Her mother was a housewife and her father a shop teacher in a trade school in Tuguegarao. When Divina was 9 years old, her father left his job and took her younger brother with him to look for work in Manila. In two years, the rest of the family followed.

The little girl from Cagayan grew up thinking that she was going to be a lawyer. But that ambition was tempered by her mother asking her to think twice.

According to Divina, “We were of the 80% of Filipinos that were poor. It would take 8 years at least to study law. And I was expected to help as quickly as I could with the schooling of my brothers and sisters. Nursing was 5 years then, but it was the height of nurse recruitment to the U.S. in the mid-70’s. So the choice was made for me.”

She studied nursing at U.P. and graduated in 1976. In November of 1982, she moved to Hawaii and married the late Professor Albert “Britt” Robillard. Divina also holds a Masters degree in Public Health (International Health) from the University of Hawaii. She taught at the Kapiolani Community College for seven years until she resigned to take full-time care of her husband who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

Even with her hands full, Divina found time for causes close to her heart.

"Mahalo, U.P. Endowment Fund Campaign"

An idea began to form on funding when former U.P. President Dr. Francisco Nemenzo met with some UPAAH members in Hawaii many years ago. Carolyn Weygan-Hildrebrand, the UPAAH president who succeeded Divina in 2012-2014 remembers, “…He left many thoughts on that visit, including where funding is needed and not addressed by Congressional budgeting. That idea coincided with what Dr. Belinda Aquino also believed in.”

Dr. Aquino donated a Professorial Chair endowment with the U.P. College of Nursing in Manila, in honor of her late mother who was a student at the then Philippine General Hospital before it became an integral part of U.P. Knowing the nuts and bolts of setting up an endowment, Dr. Aquino’s previous experience was the inspiration behind the “Mahalo, U.P.” fund campaign.

So Divina and her team accepted the challenge of raising the $36,000 during her term as UPAAH president in 2010-2012. In a September 2011 Fil-Am Observer interview, Divina was quoted, "We wanted to prove to ourselves that we, in Hawaii, can aspire to big goals and achieve them. It would mean we have the tenacity and will to implement a worthy project. It would give each one of us – the few, the simple – an opportunity to say thank you to U.P. for helping mold us to what we are now. A lot of us gave $1,000 each – an amount you can’t sneeze at that time for simple folks. Individually, it couldn’t have much effect; collectively, it would have impact."

The money raised was intended to “be held in perpetuity with only the interest to be used by the seven constituent universities of the U.P. system.” It would be administered by the university's Office of the Vice President of Academic Affairs based in Diliman, the flagship campus, in conjunction with the U.P. Foundation. The campaign was led by Nieva Elizaga (Home Economics, U.P. Iloilo 1965). Fundraising activities included a yard sale, a $1,000-a-plate “Brunch of Champions for U.P.”, a carwash, $1-a-day program, and a coupon sale.

The campaign was a tall order and required painstaking efforts to reach out to U.P. alumni and friends for whatever they could afford. Dr. Aquino remembers, “It was Lillian Uy who donated some paintings that we could auction off. Drs. Tony and Elly Tan offered their house to hold meetings of the UPAAH officers to discuss how the project was doing. We were very impressed with the hospitality and generosity of the kind doctors who worked hard to keep the project going.”

The carwash project itself was quite an experience as it was this writer’s first time to wash cars. Having just moved to Hawaii, she found herself knee deep scrubbing, washing, and rinsing cars at a restaurant’s parking lot with team members. She thought the cars would not stop coming! Divina reflects in jest,

“When you have only senior citizens as participants, do not, I REPEAT, do not do carwash as a project. You need young people to put the necessary energy. Masyadong maangal Ang mga da-tan! We also don’t look good in bikini tops.”

While the comment appears funny, there is a grain of truth behind Divina’s observation that other UPAAH members agree with. There are a number of mainstays but the organization needs more “young blood” to deliver a breath of fresh air and vigor. By “young blood” she means fellow alumni currently studying graduate studies at the University of Hawaii who stay a few years or longer. And some stay for good.

Towards that end, she hopes that UPAAH will become more relevant to the needs of the times. It needs to do away with the social club-trappings and seriously look towards helping U.P. do its job.

Life these days

When her term as UPAAH president ended, Divina threw herself in another cause close to her heart. As President of the ALS Foundation of Hawaii, she continues to advocate for families living with ALS in Hawaii and abroad.

In an email interview, she writes, “My personal advocacy is creating an ALS Residence in Hawaii… Britt lived 31 years until his death in 2015. Being a caregiver for him that long was a life of constant stress — mixed emotions of love, resentment, pride in his accomplishments, yet feeling left behind in your own development as a person.

When he died, I thought that I should feel free and move onto other things. But the lessons of 31 years need to be put to good use. So here I am still, plodding to make sure families with ALS have a more humane alternative than choosing a life staring immobilized at the ceiling waiting to die. The other choice is to forego assisted ventilation and other measures to prolong life and just opt to die when your breathing becomes impossible without technology. To me, those choices are brutal. You are already living a brutal life.”

Strong and passionate words from a woman who can make things happen. Aside from volunteering for UPAAH, Divina is also active in the Philippine Nurses Association-Hawaii Chapter, and the Filipino Association of University Women.

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