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Filipino festival still fostering ‘friends for life’ after 7 years

Children perform during last year’s Filipino Festival at Our Lady of Lourdes church.

Tom Schaaf and Maria Sinsioco come from two very different backgrounds. Schaaf once worked in close coordination with the White House, as a part of the Office of Management and Budget. Sinsioco once worked as a medical physician and lived in the Philippines. By 1996, Schaaf was working as a director for Capital One. Sinsioco was settling into her new life in the U.S.

On Aug. 10 and 11, the two will have but one simple label: volunteer. They will be working for the sole purpose of benefitting the seventh annual Filipino Festival at Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Woodman Road.

“It’s a huge effort,” Schaaf said. “You could never do this if you were paying everyone. It takes so much from our volunteers.”

The festival will feature authentic Filipino cuisine, including pansit, lumpia and adobo and live performances from the likes of Keith Horne, Janet Martin and Cedar Creek. Also, native Filipino dances will be performed by children in a local Pilipino language class.

Sinsioco and Ernesto Mina started the class, independently of the festival, at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in 2005. Sinsioco had previously held culture workshops in the Richmond area and when introduced to Mina, another teacher of Filipino culture, the idea sprouted to create a class.

“Two of my children were born here, and they are the wind beneath my wings,” Sinsioco said. “I wanted them to be able to connect with the past so that they really would understand who they are as Filipino-Americans. They’ve always participated in the class.”

The class is taught from October to June and is open to all Filipino-American youth and interested adults. It is free and completely volunteer-based. The students learn about language, art and history of the Philippines.

“The church was very supportive when we first got started,” Sinsioco said. “They gave us a free room for the program which we have all year around. We do most of the dances and performances to help the church, and proceeds go to youth programs.”

As Sinsioco’s class was starting up in a back room of Our Lady of Lourdes, Tom Schaaf was sitting on the church finance committee, thinking of ideas about how to better serve the local community.

“We started to look at things more so in a social perspective than a financial perspective,” Schaaf said. “I got to know everyone in the community through that and met a lot of our church’s Filipino contingent.”

Finally, the committee came up with the idea to run a Filipino festival. The idea was approved by the pastor and the inaugural festival was held that year.

“It was extremely successful in our first year,” Schaaf said. “It was a perfect day. We proved we could do this and we were like ‘Gee, let’s just do this every year.’”

It wasn’t long until the two programs came in contact with one another and decided to fuse interests for the good of the community.

“We just decided that we should combine forces,” Sinsioco said. “We learned about their plan and they learned about ours, and we all just decided to help out for the good of the kids.”

The class was a main cause for the influx in volunteer support for the festival, including Sue Berinato, now manager of the festival promotions team.

“I got involved because my kids were dancers in Maria’s class,” Berinato said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is a perfect opportunity for the kids to learn about our heritage. I need to help out.’”

Berinato is now one of 600 volunteers, who like Schaaf and Sinsioco come from an array of diverse backgrounds. Some are from the church and some come from other factions. Some are Filipino and some are of other heritages.

“It all starts because the kids [in the class] come from different backgrounds,” Sinsioco said. “Whether we’re black or Hispanic or whatever, it’s important to send the message that we’re all the same. We put on a dance called the Pinoy Ako at the festival. The message is that no matter what, we all should still be proud of who we are.”

Festival representatives expect this to be their biggest year for attendance, even though it competes against other festivals in the Richmond area.

“We’ve always had this competition,” Schaaf said. “The Richmond people really just love their festivals. I’m going to bet that people will really enjoy ours, plus we cost infinitely less.”

The festival begins at 5 p.m. on Friday and continues until 10 p.m. It will then continue from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday. Admission is free but donations are accepted. More information about the weekend can be found on the festival website, http://www.filipinofestival.org.

“Where else can you say, ‘Hey, come here and learn about this culture,’” Berinato said. “We’re going to teach you a bit and put on a show for you. That’s the beauty of this. Everybody’s welcome.”

“The Filipino people want the visitors to feel welcome,” Sinsioco said. “We want you to feel like you belong. When you are a friend, you are a friend for life.”

If you go
What: The Filipino Festival
Where: Our Lady of Lourdes, 8200 Woodman Road
When: Aug. 10 (5 p.m. to 10 p.m.) and Aug. 11 (10 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Admission: Free; donations accepted
Details: The event will include authentic cuisine, live music and dancing, exhibits, health screenings, children’s games, crafts, jewelry, clothing and more. For information, call 262-7315 or visit http://www.filipinofestival.org
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