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Providing educational resource for the community remains a top priority

IT all started a decade or so ago with ideas and a few questions about how young Filipino American children should grow up knowing about their history and heritage and the need for a place to do just that.

Carmen Mateo and Laarni Hazel

That idea became The Filipino School of New York & New Jersey, a nonprofit organization serving communities within New York, New Jersey and beyond, and earlier this month, it celebrated its first decade at The Women’s Club of Ridgewood in Ridgewood, New Jersey. It is an established 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that promotes the learning of Philippine language and arts, and the understanding of Philippine culture, values and tradition throughout New York, New Jersey and beyond.

The event coincided with the celebration of Filipino American History Month and the evening’s barrio fiesta theme focused on “Pagdiriwang” (which means celebration in Tagalog) and featured performances by the school’s various local community partners.

Filipino Kali Academy of Norwood, NJ

There was a Filipino martial arts demonstration from members of Filipino Kali Academy; several dances from the Southern Philippine region by Sining Kapuluan; and students from the school’s Sayawan Na! (Dance Now!) Philippine Folk Dance program who performed various rural dances with stringed accompaniment music played by the University of the Philippines Alumni & Friends Rondalla group of New Jersey.

Since its founding in 2008, the organization has been providing educational programs, workshops and events that teach Philippine languages, art, culture and history to both children and adults alike. To date, over 350 students have enrolled and attended classes, and the evening’s celebration included students, alumni, parents, staff and community partners.

Venessa Manzano, a nonprofit professional and Filipino-American community leader realized the need for a Filipino school in the NY/NJ area and started the school. Manzano mentioned that she recognized there was a dearth of educational tools on Philippine language and culture, especially in comparison to other ethnic groups like the Chinese, Koreans, French, Armenians and Japanese who had their own cultural schools.

“At the time, many of my friends were settling down and starting families of their own.  In friendly conversations, we’d talk about how we would love to impart with our children a love and understanding of their Filipino heritage. That got me thinking, and realizing, that there didn’t seem to be an established Filipino cultural school in the New York or New Jersey area,” Manzano shared.

“And hence, my search began. What also prompted me was when a close family member of mine commented on how learning about her Filipino culture wasn’t important to her since she doesn’t live in the Philippines.  The possibility of losing our culture because the younger generation was becoming more “Americanized” along with the lack of importance our people placed on being Filipino was frightening,” she added.

It took about three years to start piloting programs and to register for the organization’s nonprofit status. They needed the time to first do some preliminary market research to see what’s out there and what is lacking in terms of available Filipino educational resources. What started off as a small children’s Filipino language and cultural program in Jersey City organically blossomed into a crucial educational resource for the community.

Manzano described the first few years of the school as “exciting” and “full of energy”.

“Many people were happy to hear about the school and its existence, and wanted to help in whatever way they could,” she shared.

The school then had their children’s Filipino language and cultural program operating in Jersey City along with the adult Filipino language program.

Now serving areas including Rockland County, NY; Queens, NY; Manhattan, NY; Bergen County, NJ; and Hudson County, NJ, the school also offers a language program for adults, Philippine folk dance classes, an annual summer potluck get-together, parol-making workshops, and other special workshops on Baybayin (Philippine ancient writing system), Filipino martial arts (arnis, kali), the kulintang (Philippine gongs), among others.

Sayawan Na! Queens dancers Paige Yun, Tory Del Carmen-Dy (back L), Reeve Pelayo, Naomi David (back R), Darcy Pelayo and Dorian Pelayo

Michelle De Jesus, a parent whose children are enrolled in the school’s Sayawan Na! Philippine Folk Dance program, expressed her heartfelt appreciation of the organization and shared how her family’s experience reminded her of her childhood.

“Growing up Pinay, I remember my parents taking us to our cousins’ houses on weekends where they would all bring potluck, we would all play and run around, and they would dance and enjoy life after working so hard all week,” she said. “My parents even sent me to Filipino class to learn the same dances – Itik-Itik and some Hawaiian dances with my cousins. These gatherings are so important to our culture and our families, it’s what grounds us.”

Through the years, the school has faced problems and challenges, among them finding space to hold the programs, especially in Manhattan. Since they don’t have their own physical space yet, they go out into the communities they serve and hold the programs in spaces such as dance studios, community centers, and small business meeting rooms.

Sayawan Na! students of Bergen and Rockland Counties

As its founder, Manzano has big dreams for the school, and she hopes to realize them one by one.

“To ultimately have a paid full-time director, our own operating space and for program expansion into other communities in New York and New Jersey,” she revealed.

The anniversary event was also an opportunity to recognize the contributions of the school’s dedicated instructors who have helped build a strong foundation of learning, appreciation and awareness of Philippine culture for the students and community over the years.

They are: Kristal Aliyas, Joyelle Cabato, Laura Cabochan, Maria Deauna, Claro de los Reyes, Francis Estrada, Laarni Hazel, Joelle Lingat, Bing Magtoto, Joffin Motyka, Noel Pangilinan, Melissa Racelis, Daniel Santiago, Tricia Santos, Noel Shaw, Melissa Sumadchat, Alyssa Joy Tumbokon, and Christine Ucker.

“These individuals hold full-time jobs outside of their work with the school, and yet, because of their love for and passion of Philippine culture and teaching, they spend their evenings and weekends teaching class. They are the school’s frontline heroes,” Manzano said.

And what is a good celebration without Filipino food? Guests enjoyed a spread of savory Filipino dishes including two large lechon and buko pandan cakes were provided by Asin (Caldwell, NJ), New BBQ Pit (Bergenfield, NJ) and Tropical Hut Filipino Cuisine (Maywood, NJ) with dessert by Flushing Ice Cream Factory and by Tita Puring.

A community mural by commissioned Boston-based artist, Bren Bataclan, was also unveiled to the audience. It was the culmination of the drawings that participants drew during a workshop with Bataclan back in 2018. Also, a video montage (produced by MPW Media/Redhot Media) featuring interviews of parents, students and teachers showcasing the school’s growth and impact on the community was shown during the program.

And as guests of all ages danced the night away to the music provided by DJ Ming Ampil of SoundQuestDJNY, the children enjoyed a modified version of the traditional Filipino party game of pabitin (commissioned by Lorial Crowder of Pabitin USA) with little trinkets and toys from the Philippines.

For more information on The Filipino School of New York & New Jersey, you may visit their Facebook page, Instagram account and website: www.filschool-nynj.org or, you can contact them at (774) 257-4669 or info@filschool-nynj.org.

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