Employee Spotlights

Military to ministry: prioritizing family led to a spiritual calling

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My Traditions series

‘My Traditions’ amplifies the voices of employees and residents who represent cultures from around the world.

In honor of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, we invited James Acosta to share his story with us. He is coordinator of our International Nurse Recruitment (INR) program, which helps hundreds of Filipino nurses find meaningful employment and immigrate to the United States along with their families.

Fortunately for those nurses and families, the incredible journey they must make is one that James has traveled himself.

Now as a mentor and guide, he understands not only their challenges but also the meaningful rewards ahead. And there is nothing he won’t do to help them succeed.

James Acosta meets employees at the airport

A passion for flying and a life-altering tragedy

On the morning of January 25, 2006, James sought the nearest village store and hurriedly made a phone call to his wife Romena, informing her that he was alive and well, but his co-pilot Junie did not survive.

For months leading up to the fatal crash, James had spearheaded light military attack aircraft missions to control and counter internal insurgencies in the Southern region of Mindanao, Philippines.

Following the loud roar from the OV-10 Bronco just before it crashed, James recalls a peculiar silence as he steered his parachute to safety: “It was a silence so profound that it seemed out of this world.”

James's painting of an OV 10 military plane in The Philippines.
James’s painting of an OV 10 military plane in The Philippines.

Up until that moment, silence had been nonexistent in James’s life. From early on, he was always on the go. “I grew up in Roxas, Isabela. At age nine, my one-hour commute to school included trekking through cornfields and crossing the Siffu river,” he explains. “After receiving high school scholarships, my brother and I attended an agricultural school and lived in a nipa hut, away from our parents. I went to college at the Technological Institute of the Philippines in Manila, was later accepted into Philippine Military Academy and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautics in 1995.”

Flying was his passion, and his career helped provide a good life for Romena and their young children Justine and John (Renz) on the Philippines military base. James’s service to his country also gave his family pride. In 16 years, he received the honor and recognition of nine Distinguished Aviation Cross Awards and nine Gold Cross Awards.

His mother would say:

James, there’s no pilot here in our village, no scholar here in our village … you’re the very first one.”

Meanwhile, James supported Romena in preparing for a successful career of her own.

For years she had watched former classmates choose to serve abroad as nurses. Now was her time. So both she and James were grateful when an offer came from Presbyterian Homes & Services (PHS).

“Our conversation was that Romena would be the only one to go [to the U.S.],” James recalls, “because I was already established in my career.”

Choosing family over career

But after the airplane crash, everything changed.

The couple acknowledged the cracks in military life: James was deployed often, seeing the family only once every two months.

In the days following the crash, James remembers emotional conversations with Romena. “Your kids are still young, and your aircraft are too old,” she would plead. “It’s just a matter of time before your aircraft crashes again, and who knows what then?”

That’s when James decided he must go too.

“It was like every moment prior to boarding each aircraft I operated,” he explains, “when I would stand still and lift my hands in prayer, contemplating God’s words in Psalm 91:4-6: ‘He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.’”

A new calling – and a family brought together

With fresh eyes, James saw that the opportunity with PHS represented so much more than a paycheck: this was a calling, a ministry to older adults.

And they could spend more time together. Romena reflects, “It was a humbling thing that he chose to come with me to be together as a family.”

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Of course, it would take time, years even, to rebuild another career and way of life for his family in a new country.

So in 2006, as new nursing assistants at Langton Shores in Roseville, Minn., James and Romena worked hard to advance in nursing, a calling they felt equally passionate about.

James completed his Bachelor of Science in nursing in four years. He also worked for the U.S. Postal Service and as a chief pilot and mechanic for Wings Above Aircraft.

Family camping in the summerOutside of work, James poured his energy into the family. “I was hands-on with the rearing of my children, Justine and JR,” he remembers fondly. “We went camping and hiking during the summer months. I made home-cooked meals for them.”

Later, in 2018 — recognizing James’s talent, dedication and accumulated experience — INR Director Jim Chalmers asked him to step into a new position: coordinating the INR program.

Not long after, at the start of the global pandemic, James felt called back into nursing with the courage and dedication that he had honed decades before as an Air Force pilot.

During that critical time, James maintained dual roles while the INR program slowed. He worked tirelessly, caring for long term care residents at Maranatha in Brooklyn Center, Minn.

Helping new Filipino immigrants and their families

Post-pandemic, James has returned to focusing solely on giving INR nurses and families the best possible start.

And as one who’s been there before, he knows what it takes.

“When we came to the States, I thought I was the lowest. I started with nothing,” James remembers. “Then [as INR coordinator] I realized that some new nurses and families coming here are worse off. They have no money, no resources.”

That’s why he considers his career a ministry, he says.

I love assisting immigrants in their new life in the U.S. I feel I make an imprint on their lives when I hear declarations of their gratitude. This inspires me to be diligent in tasks bestowed upon me. I feel honored to be part of PHS.”

Compassion and empathy guide his every effort on their behalf — whether it’s monitoring and updating communications with the U.S. Embassy and immigration authorities, setting up candidates’ housing with host families, picking new arrivals at the airport, tracking their expenses and reimbursements, collecting and delivering groceries, acquiring and moving furniture, helping with transactions at car dealerships and so much more.

Still, during busy transitions, James always finds time for conversation and stories. “When I drive them, I ask them about their patients. I coach them on what they can expect, sometimes giving them tips also on how to handle cross-cultural communication with coworkers.”

James concludes, “God made me a nurse to live the experience of what they are going through. I’m very happy. It’s a ministry.”

Hundreds of Filipino nurses caring for thousands of older adults

In five years, James has positively impacted more than 200 Filipino nurses and their families.

He considers his work complete once they are successfully deployed to PHS communities in Minnesota, Iowa or Wisconsin. Representing more than 20 percent of nurses at PHS, INR nurses go on to enrich the lives and touch the hearts of thousands of older adults.

“INR nurses are very loyal, hardworking and so grateful to PHS because they came here with nothing,” James says. “They are always telling us that they had a good start.”

Wife, son and daughter express their gratitude

And along the way, James has deeply touched the lives of his two children, Justine and Renz. “I’m most proud of his tenacity,” says Renz. “He takes care of his immediate family and the family he makes at work. He wakes up, makes my breakfast, goes to the airport and the DMV, comes home and still has energy for us.”

Renz, a recent high school graduate who plans to complete a Bachelor of Science in nursing, says further, “The work he does rubs off on me and teaches me a life lesson on how much a kind, generous person can do for others, impacting lives.”

Renz feels he has patterned his character after his dad. “Since I’m going into the medical field,” Renz says, “I have already solidified the very caring, empathetic character I need to be.”

A family photo of Justine, Renz, James and Romena
From left: Justine, Renz, James and Romena.

Older sister Justine is studying for the MCAT, after completing a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience at the University of Minnesota. “My dad helped me grow up with the attitude of being service-minded,” Justine says. “He showed me how to be grateful for the blessings God has given you so that you only want to give more.”

She sees how her dad’s journey has paved the way to a better future for INR nurses and families. “I’m most proud of his willingness to go above and beyond for nurses,” she says. “He was an immigrant and knows what they’re going through. He doesn’t want them to experience any unnecessary challenges.”

Romena, who has been by James’s side the entire time, pauses to reflect:

I see James dedicating the rest of his life to this ministry and growing old with PHS. We’re so thankful to PHS. It has changed our lives for the better – to be together as a family.”

Interested in a PHS career?

Get started enriching the lives of older adults, by working at a PHS community near you. We always have a wide range of positions open in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, for a variety of careers. Whether you’re starting out, at a mid-career level or looking for a post-retirement career, we encourage you to apply to join our team at preshomes.org/careers and follow our blog.

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