“If there’s the perfect poster of mother and daughter, it is Icha Pagan and her amazing daughter,” says COMPASS CEO Robert (Bob) Pawloski. “The balance between Icha’s professional career and her motherhood is absolutely without peer.”

This mother’s day, we would like to honor Icha Pagan, the COMPASS Program Associate at Asian Studies Academy (ASA).

She’s mom to daughter Sharlene Torres, and second momma to the hundreds of students that pass through the COMPASS program every year.

Both mother and daughter work in the COMPASS afterschool program at ASA, and through their collective thirteen years at COMPASS, they have made an indelible mark on students and staff alike.

“Icha is as reliable and dependable as the sun coming up,” states Bob, “and her daughter is much the same. They are both wonderful.”

Icha’s personality precedes her: she is as positive as they come, vivacious and fun – a ball of energy, in the words of her daughter – and wise in what matters. Sharlene is the more serene of the two, the yin to her mom’s yang, but both share a passion for helping others, and a humility and kindness that permeates their way of being.

When Icha began her career at COMPASS in 2005, her daughter Sharlene was in the second grade. “I remember Jackie asking me during the interview where I saw myself in five years, and I remember telling her that I live for longevity,” she states. “I love to be in a place that I can consider my second home.”

To that end, COMPASS became something of a second family for both mom and daughter. The staff watched Sharlene grow, year after year, and watched her mother nurture her into adulthood. She excelled in school, joined the COMPASS dance team, and became a fixture around the program.  As a teenager, her volunteerism at COMPASS solidified her career plans. She hopes to one day attend law school with a specialty in family law.

Pursuant to that goal, Sharlene will graduate from the University of Hartford with a degree in Political Science. It’s a remarkable achievement, given her commitment both to school and to COMPASS, and she’d be the first to admit it wasn’t always easy, and it was especially difficult during her sophomore year.

That winter, after an intense stretch of semester finals, Sharlene took a trip to New Jersey with friends. When she returned home, the mom she knew so well seemed suddenly different. Icha didn’t tell her daughter at first, but during the previous weeks, she felt an emerging sensation of pain. The subsequent medical visits bore little more than platitudes and medications, and she didn’t want to trouble her daughter’s studies. Finally, after one significant misdiagnosis, a doctor ordered a colonoscopy and found cancer.

That she is alive today is as much a testament to the treatment as it is to her tenacity, and she hopes her story will serve as a lesson for others. Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer. The majority of cases happen over the age of 50, but Icha is far younger, and because of that received contrarian medical advice. She is something of a medical miracle only because she persisted in getting proper treatment.

“As of today, I am cancer free,” she states. “I tell people – don’t give up on yourself, and don’t let fear guide you. I easily could have done nothing; I could have just taken medications for the pain, and if that was the case, I probably wouldn’t be here to watch my daughter cross the stage at graduation.”

Cancer does not define her, and in relaying the experience, she wells up only when she remembers the response from COMPASS.

“I will never forget that call,” she says. “Bob [COMPASS’ CEO] called me right after he found out and said: I will be here for you. Your job will always be here. When you walk into that surgery, you do so with your head held high.”

She pauses to collect herself, before continuing, “between my mother, my daughter, and COMPASS, it pushed me through. There were some days that I wanted to give up, but I refused to allow anyone to say anything negative to me.” She wipes her eyes, and the big laugh returns. “I always say, I’m Puerto Rican! I got this!”

People often ask what the secret sauce is at COMPASS, what makes the organization so unique.

This story is one of the many proof points that articulates a COMPASS ethos of love and service, honesty and integrity, sacrifice and fidelity. It’s more than a job. It’s a set of values that infuse a series of deeply meaningful relationships. Icha and Sharlene are close by the nature of their bond, but it’s a bond that extends to everyone around them. “My mom is very motherly,” explains Sharlene. “Even my other co-workers start their day by giving her a hug.”

Icha concurs that when she started COMPASS, she didn’t expect the nurturing attachments she’s had with the kids. “Some of these kids have trouble within their own families, but they know we’re here, that we’ll always be here. It’s been wonderful to watch them grow up, to be invited to graduations and weddings,” she adds. “I treat the kids like my own, and I am constantly preaching them to them: don’t give up. Nothing in life comes easy.”

As for the child that is her very own, Icha has some specific words of wisdom. “Never feel that you have to be a certain way,” she tells Sharlene. “I want you to live your life for you. There’s no such thing as perfection, but you come close because you’re perfect to me.”

By: Clare Timmis
Feature Photo Credit: Icha Pagan & Sharlene Torres, 2017 | Defining Studios