‘Finding Nellie’: Olongapo mystery solved by father-daughter team

Photography courtesy of Finding Nelle There are many stories about who Nellie could have been — a teacher, a volunteer or maybe even a business owner.

On 6 November 2021, Dr. Leo de Castro, a Philosophy professor at the University of the Philippines, received four birthday cakes from an old grade school friend. They both studied at Nellie E. Brown Elementary School (NEBES), a public school in Olongapo City.

Connected to Subic Bay and facing the West Philippine Sea, Olongapo is known for being part of a United States Naval Base from 1901 to 1959. Placenames in Olongapo tell stories about this time, as streets, schools and establishments carry foreign names — most of which can easily be traced to navy officials who were previously stationed there, local government officials and even American presidents.

But who was Nellie E. Brown? This is the question that De Castro’s daughter, Ellie, kept asking. Her Dada, his brothers and the people they grew up with apparently didn’t know.

There are many stories about who Nellie could have been: a teacher, a volunteer or maybe even a business owner. But no one knows for certain as official documents about the school’s first days are missing. The official history of NEBES, as documented by the Department of Education, mentions that Nellie was a Peace Corps volunteer who helped build the school. However, the timing doesn’t match: the Peace Corps started only in 1961, while the school was founded in 1953.

Why was a school named after her? And why doesn’t anyone seem to know?

‘Finding Nellie’

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 National Geographic explorers (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 US military personnel; get in touch with local politicians (even a Senator!); 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.

Two years and a few months later, the team is ready to announce: that Nellie has been found.

On 11 April, Finding Nellie, led by Ellie de Castro, will announce the official identity of Nellie E. Brown. The event will be held at the grounds of Nellie E. Brown Elementary School, from 7 to 9:30 a.m., in front of the school’s current students, faculty and Olongapo’s active community participants. It will be followed by an interactive exhibit that showcases the team’s journey of Finding Nellie.

Ellie is a Filipina archaeologist whose work focuses on finding avenues to connect heritage and youth. She led the Handi Project from 2015 to 2020, where she organized field trips to bring students from the indigenous Ifugao group to their world-renowned heritage sites, which they previously didn’t have access to. For the Dewil Valley Museum in El Nido, Palawan, she produced educational materials, artwork and activities for the youth of the valley to engage them with the archaeological sites in their neighborhood. These projects focused on creating opportunities to connect with heritage resources in communities. Ellie seeks to enable participants of her projects to appreciate their homes in a new light and see the wonders of the world in their immediate surroundings.

Other members of the team are Peg Keiner and Rachel Hansen. Keiner is an educator in the United States and is an Apple Distinguished Educator, Google Earth Education Expert, a 2018 National Geographic Certified Educator and United Nations Association-Chicago Global Goal Ambassador. Also an educator, Hansen has much experience using participatory design and inquiry-based learning in her classroom. In 2021, Rachel was awarded the AP Human Geography Distinguished Teaching Award from the National Council for Geographic Education.

Visit the project’s online spaces: @finding.nellie (Instagram), @finding.nellie (TikTok) and website www.elliedecastro.com/finding-nellie.