A QUICK GLANCE AT former Sen. Shirley “Sam” Mabini’s resume will give you a sense of someone who isn’t afraid of jumping in at the deep end. At 51, the Guam-born woman with Filipino blood coursing through her veins is at the top of the Department of Labor where she currently serves as director.
With each different position she’s held in her 15 years of government service plus time spent in the private sector, Mabini never fails to act as a change agent. She’s had no time to put her feet up to get comfortable, which has made all the difference in making a difference.
“I remember thinking to myself, I could easily have an attitude that this is scary, I can’t believe I’m taking on this role,” she said about jumping into different key leadership positions. “But I enjoy the challenge and the opportunity to make a change. That’s what I find exciting, thinking how can our little department make a big difference in the community.”
She’s held various positions at the Guam Community College, eventually rising to become an associate dean. She also once served as the acting director of the Guam Public Library System where she’d also been a board member, urging employees to commit to engaging in community projects, including a successful outdoor parade. She’s been the general manager of the island’s public television station where she manned its rebranding to PBS Guam to make it more relatable.
“It’s about going in there and waking people up and reminding them what they need to do,” she said. “We tend to get comfortable in the government. As management, it’s our responsibility to remind people why we’re here.” And of course, she served a term as a senator in the 31st Guam Legislature. A run for a seat was a calling, she said.
After completing her doctorate in the Work and Human Resource program at the University of Minnesota, she was thrilled to have been offered a teaching position on Guam.
“The department’s senior faculty discussed courses I would teach and how I would be involved in innovative collegiate activities,” she said. “I was very excited to begin an academic, professional career to work with college students who can potentially change the course of K-12 education in Guam.”
However, the job offer was rescinded, abruptly and without any explanation. “It was like a rug was pulled right out from beneath me, which knocked the wind out of me. I had driven to a restaurant that late afternoon, dazed and disturbed. I sat alone at a booth for hours, mulling over what had just happened. Interestingly, I did not feel like fighting the decision. It had dawned on me that despite the disservice I felt, I was actually more upset that I had lost the opportunity to make a difference for the students of Guam! Then a notion came over me, that if I can’t beat them, then [I need to] join them. So, I decided there and then in early 2009 to run for senator. In November 2009, I was elected the first Filipina-American senator in the Guam Legislature,” she narrated lengthily.
Although she only served a single term in office, it was the most visible and impactful position she said she’s held. Mabini proffered legislation for the College and Career Readiness Act, requiring the Guam Department of Education to integrate college and career preparation with academic preparation.
“The ideal situation is that everybody gets the same education, and in between they talk about college and career,” Mabini said. “The guidance for college and careers is integrated and not tracking. At the end of the day, we’re going to school so we can work and be successful after and not just put that cap on our heads. My main focus as a senator was always about workforce development. It’s been six years since the signing of the CCaRe Act, and I understand that GDOE is continuing to ensure its implementation.”
After that legislative stint, Mabini snuck away from public life to pursue a personal passion, jumping literally into the deep end. “I’m an island girl, and I love the sun and sea,” she said. “I am not afraid to get dark or wet by the ocean. I swim, snorkel, Jet Ski, paddleboard, kayak, and have been scuba diving for over 30 years. It drove my Filipino family crazy. But I wanted to find a way to blend my love for the ocean and understanding dolphins.”
She went looking for a program that worked with dolphins and children with disabilities, and found one in Panama City, Florida. “I moved out there and trained to work with kids with wild dolphins. I even lived on a boat and worked on a boat,” she revealed.
She took that experience home, piloting a private program that offered holistic therapy for children with disabilities. The Guam Regional Medical City got on board with support along with the Nikko Hotel, which allowed her to operate Sirena-T without charge in their hotel. It included art, play, water, and recreational and environmental education therapy. The people she trained with in Florida flew on their own dime to Guam to help her with the pilot, including an occupational therapist, speech pathologist, and recreational therapist.
Together they ran a successful program for two months. “I’m not a licensed therapist, but what I like is developing these programs and putting it together. I like to see where the resources are, pulling it together, planting that seed so services can be delivered and, hopefully, someone will adopt it and move on with it,” Mabini said.
It’s the same approach the Labor Director takes each time she jumps in at the deep end.
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