Sparta - The gathering was a celebration of Filipino culture and heritage, and Sparta's own Rachael De Chacon was the queen of it all. On Aug. 13 De Chacon was crowned Miss Philippines USA at a pageant held at the Sheraton Hotel in the Meadowlands. De Chacon, a 2003 Sparta High School graduate, is currently studying philosophy and economics at Boston College. This month she will start studying at the London School of Economics in England. "While I have always had a deep respect and gratitude for my Filipino heritage, joining this pageant has given me an opportunity to express this gratitude in a way that positively affects people," said De Chacon in a phone interview from her home in Sparta. Having no prior pageant experience other than participating in a Miss Sparta contest, it was the service aspect of this particular pageant that prompted De Chacon to get involved. The pageant's sponsor, the Philippine American Communities Executive Council, Inc. (PACEC) donates the proceeds each candidate is required to raise, to various Filipino charities. "The pageant was also a very meaningful way for me to connect with my family's culture. My cousin Mary Louise McGuinness, also a Sparta resident, was crowned Miss Philippines in this same pageant in 1980, and my family talked about the pageant, encouraging me to join," said De Chacon. De Chacon's mother, Sonia, was born in San Pablo City, Laguna, in the Philippines, and is especially proud of her daughter's achievement. "I'm proud that she participated in a pageant that not only fund-raises to support the Philippines in places where help is needed, but that will give her the opportunity to actually visit there. It is important to me that my children appreciate the culture that I came from," said Sonia De Chacon. The summer-long preparation time needed for the pageant gave De Chacon plenty of quality time with her family. Long hours were spent fund raising, taking dance lessons from a Filipino dance teacher in Jersey City, and in choreography classes in Manhattan, working on the entertainment aspect of the pageant. "I gave up my entire summer to compete in this pageant," said De Chacon. "I'm so grateful for my parents' support and help all summer long. It was great being together and having my family so involved. I enjoyed getting to know the other contestants and raising awareness about Filipino charities and organizations that offer relief to needy Philippine causes." De Chacon said that she is looking forward to fulfilling her duties as an ambassador of Filipino culture. On Sept. 15, the new queen will meet the current president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. In addition, she will visit several islands in the Philippines starting in July of 2006. Among the places she will visit is her mother's hometown, which is planning a parade in her honor. The trip will also be used deliver the funds raised by the pageant and other fund raisers throughout the year. De Chacon's father, Jeffrey, believes this has been a wonderful experience for his daughter and a great opportunity for her to learn about her mother's culture. "It is a culture renowned for its friendliness and compassion, and we are so looking forward to visiting there with our children. I am so proud of Rachael's tremendous efforts for charity, and her commitment to Filipino culture," said Jeffrey De Chacon. In the future, De Chacon would like to be involved in doing research on education systems in the Philippines, and eventually to attend law school. "I came out of this experience wanting so badly to work with Philippine charities in the future. Initially I entered because my family encouraged me to, but it has truly been an incredible experience and the most special thing I've ever done, giving me the opportunity to learn so much about my mother's culture. I am so excited and honored to represent the pageant in the upcoming year."