By Matthew Rodriguez
Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor
Growing up in South Pasadena, Ellen Torres’ mother wholeheartedly supported her throughout her school years.
“My mom was always involved,” Torres said. “She would help out when she could. Back then, your mom was in the PTA. I always felt that that’s what you did. … It was always something that I knew when I had kids that I would be part of the PTA.”
After making her way through the South Pasadena school system and graduating from California State University, Los Angeles, she became the first in her family to earn a four-year degree.
She eventually returned to South Pasadena to provide her children with the best education possible. And when her children finally did go to school, she joined the PTA just like her mother did years ago.
For more than 30 years, Torres has been in the PTA. She became the president of the unit, council and district PTAs throughout her career. Recently, she was elected to the California PTA and named vice president for Convention.
As COVID-19 slowly drifts away, Torres will plan the annual fair, or Convention, where California PTA members gather for panels and share ideas. Networking is the key to Convention.
“She’s the perfect person, and I couldn’t be more excited,” California PTA President Carol Green said about Torres. “When I found out that Ellen was going to be the vice president for Convention the year that I was president, I thought I had hit the jackpot.”
Just as her mother before her, Torres joined the PTA over 30 years ago as her oldest son began kindergarten.
“I just wanted to be active in my kids’ life,” Torres said. “I’ve always known that the more you’re involved the better kids do in school.”
She recalled standing in between two baseball fields as her two sons played in Little League, cheering on one end before running over and watching her other son step up to bat. Torres and her husband, Edward, felt that it was important to be active in their children’s lives.
“I just wanted to be with my kids,” Torres said. “I wanted to experience everything with them. I wanted them to experience things that I didn’t get to do.”
When Torres started in the PTA, she did simple fundraisers and volunteered, but as she continued, she felt she needed to advocate more for the students.
When her children were in school, Torres did not believe families should pay out of pocket for their children’s education. She helped raise money for a reading specialist and helped repeal a long-standing bus fee for athletes and cheerleaders.
“The PTA is a huge advocate. They’re the largest advocacy group for children,” Torres said. “Most people think it’s just fundraising, selling gift wrap, that type of stuff. But it’s so much more. We are the largest advocacy group, and we can make policy changes.”
Torres and the PTA have helped pass legislation that pushed back the starting time of schools after research showed that it helped students excel in classrooms.
After her children graduated from the school district, Torres continued to serve on the PTA to ensure everyone receives an equal education.
Torres was raised in a working-class family. Her father worked long hours at the local grocery store. He often missed major moments in her life to ensure that he could support the rest of the family.
“It’s not noticeable nowadays, but at the time it was the haves and have-nots,” Torres said. “I lived near El Centro (Elementary School), which was not considered the ‘have’ part of town.”
Her family’s situation meant her parents could not afford for Torres to take electives like photography. Cameras were out of their price range.
“That’s the main reason I have been so actively involved in PTA,” Torres said. “(I wanted) to make a difference, and so everything was equal for kids.
“Kids shouldn’t have to put out their own money. Families shouldn’t have to put out their own money.”
Long after her children had graduated from college, Torres continues to advocate for South Pasadena children.
“I’ve never ever stopped being involved with PTA,” Torres said. “I’ve always felt that this is where I needed to be.”
Her enthusiasm to help her community caught the eyes of others in the PTA.
“Ellen always thinks of the whole community,” Green said. “She has worked and volunteered in the PTA even when her children had moved on to other schools. She’ll stay with the school and help out. She really cares about all the kids in the community.
“She’s there for people, and she’s just a lovely person. Her community is so lucky to have her.”
In the past few years, membership in the PTA has declined. The closure of schools caused by the COVID-19 pandemic only made matters worse.
“The pandemic has really cut our numbers,” Torres said. “Our main focus is getting our membership back up.”
As students and teachers return to in-person learning and as school sites reopen, she hopes to persuade parents to join the PTA and become involved with their children’s lives.
“People think that joining PTA means you have to volunteer, and that’s not necessarily true nowadays,” Torres said. “It’s a voice, and the more members we have the bigger our voice is.”
Torres has also served on several other boards and community organizations. She was on the board of the Friends of the South Pasadena Public Library; the president of the San Marino Chapter of the National Charity League, an organization her daughter was also a part of; and the committee chair for the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses.