As a woman who has a habit of breaking down barriers, first for herself, and now for others, 27-year-old Rossana Villaflor is a true role model who after a deprivation-filled childhood in the Philippines transformed her life in America with the help of a unique life skills curriculum called Overcoming Obstacles (www.overcomingobstacles.org). Intent on giving back to the community, Rossana recently also founded a non-profit to bring dance and creative arts to inner city kids, Community for Urban Dance & Art (CUDA).
I spoke with Rossana right after she received an award at the 14th annual Women of Action awards ceremony in Jersey City, where women from the community are honored for their accomplishments and contributions to the city’s residents. Rossana was nominated by Councilman-At-Large Ronaldo R. Lavarro, Jr. for her positive energy and voluntary efforts and contributions to the community as an artist, break dancer, and advocate for the youth.
Can you tell me about your early childhood in the Philippines?
RV: My sisters (one is two years older than me, and one is five years older) and I were born and raised in the Philippines. When I was three my mother left us and came to America to work as a nurse. She had to make the sacrifice to provide a better life for us. My aunt raised us, and I didn’t see my mother again until I was nine years old. It was tough to communicate with my mother; because we didn’t own a telephone we had to travel an hour and a half to make a call. By 1994, my mom had saved up enough money to bring us over to the United States; eventually we ended up in Jersey City.
What was it like being in America?
We had come to America in the hopes of finding a better life; but we found it was tough to get that opportunity. I thought that my life in America would be a white picket fence and dogs; the reality was much different. We all lived in a small, one bedroom apartment in a bad area of town. To make ends meet my mom had to work nearly 24/7 to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.
In the mid ’90s, there was a zero tolerance by the police in New York City for gangs; so many of the gangs hopped the train and traveled to Newark and Jersey City. As an impressionable young kid, with next to no supervision, the only people I had to look up to were gang members. My 8th grade guidance counselor soon saw that I was not hanging out with the right crowd. So she introduced me to The Fifteen Together Program, a district wide program that tackled dropout rates and increased graduation rates, using the main curriculum of Overcoming Obstacles. It changed my outlook; especially seeing that someone cared enough to show me a better way.
I learned life skills such as conflict resolution, the power of positive thinking and visualization; how to deal with peer pressure and compromising situations, and how to strategically avoid fights. Through thoughtful discussion, role-playing activities, and the opportunity to lead fellow students, the program helped me envision long-term goals while taking small steps to achieve them.
Lacking the decision making and communication skills to withstand the pressures of living in a rough environment, I could have easily fallen into a destructive lifestyle. When I received the $10,000 scholarship from Overcoming Obstacles in 2004, as part of the organization’s annual Achievement Awards (she wrote an essay on how she used good decisions to overcome challenges and set goals to avoid negative situations) I was honored because I had always thought scholarships were purely academic or artistic or athletic in nature; I never thought someone could be recognized just for being a good person, being positive and making smart decisions. I used the funds to pursue a degree in fine arts from New Jersey City University and worked for Overcoming Obstacles while in school. Upon graduating, I joined the organization full-time.
What is your role at the Overcoming Obstacles?
I’m the Manager of Educational Outreach and Professional Development. Overcoming Obstacles is available at no cost thanks to a Gifting Initiative made possible by the Community for Education Foundation. Formally announced in January 2012, the goal of the initiative is to make life skills instruction part of every student’s basic education across the country.
In my position I work with NYC public schools and schools in nearby areas to train the staff help them learn about the impact of the program and see how it can fit into their school structure and schedule. Then I help educators implement the curriculum that helped me to succeed and show them how to meet their goals for student achievement.
Why did you co-found the non-profit CUDA?
I co-founded the non-profit Community for Urban Dance & Art (CUDA), with my friends from high school. We wanted to give back to the community so we inventoried our skills, and realized we were great at break dancing and art projects. So we started providing workshops in those areas to the kids in our community. The mission of CUDA is to stimulate the talents of the students, enhance their self-confidence and personal growth, and amplify their appreciation for the visual and performing arts through positive and creative outlets. I used the service learning handbook from Overcoming Obstacles to get the students engaged. Right now we are in our infancy stage; we have performed at community events like the HIV/AIDS awareness day; walk for Hudson Cradle, for abandoned babies with AIDS. We are in the process of developing our workshops and goal-setting skills, as well as the strategy plan for implementation. It’s exciting for me to be using the skills I learned and doing something that I’m passionate about.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to continue doing what I’m doing with Overcoming Obstacles. It will also help with the bullying problem in schools; students need to be more assertive and self-confident to even begin to deal with the issue of bullying. For CUDA, I’d like to expand the program and take on a key role in providing the workshops to schools and communities so that kids can channel their energy into artistic pursuits: painting murals, dancing and winning competitions; writing music and poetry
What advice can you give to young women who are in your former situation?
I think I would tell them, be kind to yourself. When kids feel bad or insecure they inflict pain on other people.This is why Overcoming Obstacles needs to be in every middle school and high school. No child should be deprived of learning the vital skills they need to rise above their struggles.
Rossana is truly a young woman to watch.