By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City — Venessa Manzano was serenely pushing a stroller on her way up to Time Warner studio in Queens when we first met. With the familiar spontaneity of Filipinos, we greeted each other at the reception area. I thought she was one of the crew members of Makilala TV where I was heading to, for a taping of an episode on parenting.
No, she said, she is a dance coach to the children who will perform the subli for Makilala. She also introduced the baby, Julian, her bunso (youngest). Interesting. To my mind, I have another awesome person to feature in OSM!.
At the set of Makilala TV, Venessa was rehearsing her young students dance the subli as a feature segment for the show. The children wore bright floral skirts with matching hats adorned with flowers. The young students of the Filipino School of New York and New Jersey simply brightened the studio.
The school, founded in 2008 by Venessa, is intent in promoting a keen understanding of Filipino and Filipino-American history, language, arts, and culture through education. Seven years later, the school has expanded for it provided what young generations of Filipinos in America needed – that sense of cultural rootedness.
Venessa was born in Honolulu and raised in Massachusetts, the eldest daughter of first generation Filipino parents Ben and Tessie Manzano.
She currently resides in the Bergen County area of New Jersey with husband Mark Habana and their three children, Xavier, Natalie and Julian.
She spoke Tagalog fluently at the age of 10 and has shown a leadership quality that later on proved worthwhile for her environs in Boston where she grew up and later in New York and New Jersey.
Venessa studied Physical Therapy in Northeastern University and was a founding member of the school’s first Filipino student organization (NU Barkada). In 2004, she graduated from Boston University’s School of Public Health with a Master’s degree in Public Health (MPH) focusing on International Health. She also took classes on linguistics and elementary education at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City.
In 2005, Venessa became executive director of the Filipino American Human Services, Inc. (FAHSI) which is based in New York. Its service programs include the Seniors Support Program, Women’s Support Program, 9/11 Case Management Program, Leading Youth to Finding Empowerment (LYFE), and Adult Conversational Tagalog Classes.
Her profession has since revolved on social services. Since 2011, Venessa is the director of development for foundation relations at Columbia University Medical Center which raise funds to support medical research, education, and programs.
Her years of research on the Filipino community tied and the experience in non-profit management and small business development consulting enabled this young, visionary leader to set up the school that responds to the needs of a growing number of young Filipino parents and families looking for cultural programs for their children.
Here is an excerpt of my interview with Venessa.
1. What led to set up this school for culture and arts?
When I gave birth to my first child, I was thinking of the countless things I wanted him to know and learn, and this included his Filipino culture and heritage. I was not the only parent thinking about this, as many of my Filipino friends and peers were starting their own families as well, at the time.
I realized that no Filipino cultural school existed in the tri-state area, and with that, I wanted to fill this void. There were Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Spanish and French cultural schools – so, why not have a Filipino one since there are many Filipinos residing in NY and NJ?
2. Were you trained or schooled specifically for dance and related studies? Has this been a passion ever since?
I learned how to speak Tagalog/Filipino from my paternal grandmother when she lived at home with us. She would tell me stories of her growing up, along with traditional folklore and ghost stories.
In addition, I would watch the shows that were available on The Filipino Channel at home, read magazines and newspapers that we brought back from the Philippines, and write letters in Tagalog to my cousins and pen pals in the Philippines.
In terms of dancing, I learned the various folk dances by being a part of several Filipino organizations in the Boston area over many years – PAMAS and The Philippine Dance Company of Boston. With these groups, I performed at many events, all over the New England area. As I got older, I had the opportunity to teach the younger members all the dances I learned.
I was also a student at Iskwelahang Pilipino and learned a few dances there, and was a co-founding member of my alma mater’s Filipino student group (Northeastern University’s Barkada) where we performed at annual inter- and intra-collegiate events. I must acknowledge and thank Ms. Marijo Castro Fadrigalan, who is a former Bayanihan dancer, for the many years she had taught me and the others. It is from her that I learned so much about Philippine folk dance and how to perform them.
And yes, ever since then, I have always had a passion for Philippine dance and performing recreationally, and enjoy teaching other this beautiful art of our culture.
3. What challenges are there in setting up the school? How were you able to break through?
The challenges we initially faced include determining the need for setting up a school, and who and where are target audience is. And also whether or not to incorporate it as a for-profit or non-profit.
Drafting the articles of incorporation and bylaws and designing our curriculum and lesson plans were challenges too.
Where to get start-up funding was one of the major challenges.
In some ways we were able to break-through in meeting with directors of other foreign language schools that have programs we would like to emulate.
We conducted market research to see what currently exists in terms of other Filipino cultural schools or Filipino language, arts and after-school programs and their impact.
We held small focus groups of individuals who supported the idea of opening a Filipino school to get their ideas and talk things through. We also held a pilot program to test how the classes would work, and find areas that need improvement.
4. Are you in competition with other schools? Why or why not? What is the distinction of your school from the others?
Since we did conduct market research in preparation of setting up the school, I believe we are not in competition with other schools (or organizations who have similar programming). What makes us stand out from the rest is our students and their families who enroll and participate in our programs and events. These are families who are not active in or have no connection to the various Filipino community organizations in the area. Many of them are of mixed, interracial families, and some are of other religious backgrounds other than Roman Catholic. Another distinction is that instead of having a central site or physical building of our own, we go out to the communities that express interest in our programming.
5. What prospects do you have for the school?
Within the next two years, we hope to expand our board and increase staffing, as we hope to reach out to additional communities in the New York and New Jersey area.
We would definitely strengthen our programs especially our Sayawan Na! Philippine Folk Dance Program.