The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes “sight-seeing.” ~Daniel J. Boorstin
Thelma Arceo has always been a traveler.
Her love of travel began, she recounts, when she was a youngster growing up in Manila, the capital of the Philippine islands. Her father, a man of many talents, including publishing a newspaper and producing popular entertainment, often took the whole family – Thelma, her two sisters, her brother and their mother – on trips each winter and summer. Hong Kong, Japan, most of Southeast Asia, Egypt, and Europe – the Arceo family visited them all.
When Thelma, in her twenties, received a scholarship from the Philippine government to go to the Netherlands and get a Masters degree in bio-fuels research, it did not seem at all inappropriate to visit her sisters in New York City along the way.
“So I did,” Thelma laughingly recalls during lunch at a Filipino restaurant in Long Island City. “And my sisters said, ‘Why do you want to go there? Stay here.’ And I didn’t know, but my older sister, Ramona, had already gotten a lot of school applications. So I applied and got accepted in Syracuse University, NYU and NYIT (New York Institute of Technology). Syracuse is very cold, and my sister said, ‘Oh, the suicide rate there is high. You should not go there.’ NYU was quite expensive. So we chose NYIT. And that’s how I stayed in the United States.”
But traveling, as most of us know, can involve more than visiting foreign countries. Traveling can involve journeys through careers, voyages into new workplaces and realms of learning. And in those respects, also, Thelma is one of Daniel J. Boorstin’s active seekers of adventure.
In Manila she had worked at the Philippine National Oil Company.
In the U.S., on some mornings she went to NYIT and other mornings she taught science to gifted youngsters in grades 1 through 6 at the Manhattan East School. “That’s why I have a loud voice,” she jokes. “Because of the kids. In class, I needed a loud voice.” Her mother was a teacher, and, says Thelma, “I’m more like my mother than my father, although the writing all came from him.” (Her father died last year.)
Studying and teaching rambunctious children might have been a full day for many people, but not for Thelma. At night she participated in an HPD (Housing Preservation and Development) training program, a connection that led to a job with the New York Urban Coalition, to which HPD subcontracted work on its buildings. At the Coalition in 1992 she came face-to-face for the first time with Richard Cherry, when the Coalition’s board asked to meet with her, so they could give her a department. (She later learned it was Mr. Cherry’s decision.)
“The role of my department was to be a consultant to everybody,” says Thelma. “I was doing all of the technical services for different departments.”
There was one interesting catch, she recalls. There was no budget for her department: Mr. Cherry told her she would have to fund projects herself (she did). “In hindsight,” says Thelma, “I think he knew the Coalition would be closing.”
Indeed, two years later, in 1994, the Coalition dissolved, and CEC was born. The Coalition’s technical services department moved to CEC mostly intact, Thelma with it, making her one of the first CEC employees.
CEC was, she remembers, a very different kind of place from what it is now. There was a smaller staff (she recalls about 20 people.) Mr. Cherry came to work early and left late. And weatherization was sole focus. Then as now, weatherization funding had its ups and downs, and so, to find other ways to support the agency, Mr. Cherry initiated “fee-for-service” operations.
As CEC has grown, so has Thelma’s department. Sixteen years later, by her count, she oversees 24 people – more than CEC’s original group of employees. CEC’s family now includes BIG!NYC and Solar One, and fee-for-service work encompasses retrofits, solar thermal installations, damp-spray cellulose insulation, LEED, retro-commissioning, and other services.
“We have done quite a bit to change the world,” she says. “At least from my end, 16 years, I’ve seen buildings on the brink of being sold out, tenants being pushed out of their homes, and we basically saved the building for the owner by giving him all the improvements. Buildings that were really in distress, with the boiler broken and the roof leaking. We gave additional years for those tenants who lived there.”
At the same time that CEC was maturing, Thelma’s yen for world travel took her to countries few of us get to see: Mongolia, Peru, Africa, India, and Bhutan – among many other places.
She particularly loved Bhutan, a small kingdom that nestles in the Eastern Himalayas. But India? Not so much.
“The people of Bhutan are wonderful,” says Thelma. “It’s the only country where they don’t calculate the GNP – they calculate the Gross National Happiness of the people. It’s a Shangri-la.”
“But the only way I was able to go to Bhutan,” she explains, “was through India, because Bhutan is protected. The army of Bhutan is actually provided by India, which thinks that, when China tries to invade, it will be through Bhutan.
“I was so depressed after leaving India. The poverty. The dirt. You see people sleeping on the sidewalks. It’s just overwhelming. There’s much to see architecture-wise – the temples – but for me, the impact of travel is about the culture and the people. I found India really depressing.”
Of course, as numerous people have observed over the years, one of the pleasantest aspects of travel is to come home.
For Thelma, that home is in Forest Hills, Queens, where during the week she lives with her younger sister, Theresa, who works in Manhattan and commutes back to her own house in Pennsylvania on weekends.
But clearly the center of Thelma’s home life is a beloved 13-year-old dachshund named Hund. “I call her my baby,” she says affectionately. “But she’s old – very old – 91 in human years. Her expected life is 15 years, so I’m getting ready. But I’m too close with her, and I think I will be devastated.”
Assuming all goes well at CEC and at home, Thelma, not surprisingly, is planning a fall excursion. She has booked a trip to Morocco in November, but because of the trouble next door in Libya, she feels that she might go the Amazon River instead.