On April 11, Ellie De Castro concluded the Finding Nellie Project at Nellie E. Brown Elementary School (NEBES) by revealing the true identity of her father’s elementary school namesake, Nellie E. Brown. Her audience consisted of NEBES’ current students and faculty, former and retired teachers and principals, alumni, Olongapo Historical Society members, local government representatives and Department of Education representatives.

The reveal comes after 646 days of research alongside 5 National Geographic Explorers and De Castro’s own family and friends. The day was called the Olongapo Heritage Fair, where a program filled with messages from the community and an interactive exhibit for both students and alumni were organized by the Finding Nellie Team with support from Olongapo City Vice Mayor Jong Cortez and West Bajac-Bajac Barangay Captain Billy Capistrano. 

“Sa hinaba-haba ng adventure, ay nahanap na din si Nellie”

Nellie E. Brown turned out to be a kindergarten teacher from Bangor, Maine. She did not establish NEBES nor was she a former teacher there – as many NEBES alumni and Olongapo citizens first thought her to be. Instead, one of her students, Roger Brown Nickerson, grew up to be a Captain on the US Navy and was eventually stationed in Subic Bay as a Commander from 1952 to 1953. He established NEBES in 1953 and named it after his favorite teacher, Nellie E. Brown. She passed away on February 26, 1954, a year after the school was built.

De Castro was able to find the answer after corresponding with the US National Archives and Records Administration, which led her to go on Ancestry.com and look up everything she has since found out about Nellie E. Brown from different stakeholders and sources. It seemed like a simple resolution after almost 2 years of research, but in her speech revealing Brown, De Castro shared that “the story of Finding Nellie isn’t just about Nellie E. Brown and Commander Nickerson. In Finding Nellie, we also got to find the people who have built and made this community in Olongapo what it is.”

To celebrate Finding Nellie with the local community, the day’s festivities awarded groups of students who took part in their own mini research projects after drawing inspiration from De Castro’s project with her fellow researchers and explorers. Winning research projects included topics on local food culture and solid waste management.

De Castro dedicates Finding Nellie to her father, NEBES alumnus Dr. Leo De Castro of the University of the Philippines. Although Nellie has been found, her team will continue to release material about their adventure and encourage students from different schools to keep being curious about their own heritage and identities. A public version of the exhibit and a screening of a documentary on Finding Nellie  will be held later in the year at a community center in Olongapo and in Manila.

Finding Nellie: The Project

What Ellie thought would be a quick Google search turned out to be an adventure that has lasted more than two years. Finding Nellie is a project that has made a team of archaeologists, educators, and storytellers scour through offline and online archives in the Philippines and abroad; inquire with libraries, cemeteries, historians, and even active and retired U.S. military personnel; get in touch with local and national  politicians; and message anyone who might remotely be related to a Nellie Brown on social media, via telephone, and even by knocking on their doors. On Instagram, the team shares every step of this journey through its colorful and interactive Field Notes. 

With the help of the National Geographic Society, Finding Nellie has allowed Ellie and her teammates to connect and reconnect with friends and family; foster an appreciation for community roots; and bring world history lessons a little closer to home – especially to the current students of Nellie E. Brown.

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