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From journalism to social work

SAN FRANCISCO – She was one of the best field reporters I had the pleasure of working with at the ABS-CBN newsroom during my watch as VP and News Director. Oh, she had the usual ego and temper that newsroom folks are notorious for. But she could be depended upon to deliver great stories in time for the nightly newscast.

With a degree in Foreign Service from UP rather than journalism or broadcast communication, she provided the intellectual depth not normally expected from television news.

She had what it took to go beyond the Palace statements during an assignment to cover a state visit of FVR. But she also conveyed the human drama of the Ormoc flood I asked her to cover, with barely a moment’s notice.

Vivian Zalvidea migrated to San Francisco many years ago. I remember getting a call from her to tell me that she has decided to go beyond her comfort zone and explore the unknown.

Two years ago, I found her working at ABS-CBN’s newsroom in Redwood City, an hour’s drive away from San Francisco. She had married and divorced by then and a single mom to a girl who gave the impression of being her mini-me. She was producing the nightly newscast for The Filipino Channel (TFC) anchored by Gel Santos-Relos, another one of my former staff back at ABS-CBN in Manila.

Then I heard she quit the TFC job, after winning some awards for the ABS-CBN news operation here. She took on the challenge of heading a nonprofit group helping Filipinos in the Bay Area, particularly the new immigrants.

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As she puts it, she has spent years as a journalist being a mere observer, professionally detached from the people she covers. Now she is directly and very personally involved in people’s lives.

We had lunch a few blocks from her office on 7th Street, known as the SOMA or South of Market (Street). She looked happy, bubbly even… not stressed as most journalists running after a deadline usually are. She just turned 50 she said, but I am sure people here think she isn’t a day older than 35.

It’s her job, she says, it gives her a strong sense of fulfillment even if she has to worry all the time about funding everything they are doing. It is great to see the difference you make in other people’s lives, she declares.

 “On my first day at West Bay,” she recalled, “my predecessor gave me a solid dose of reality. He told me: ‘Not only are you the executive director now. You’re also the janitor. Let me show you where to bring the trash.’”

The nonprofit she works for is called the West Bay Pilipino Multi-services Center. It is the go to place for Filipinos in need of help for one thing or another. It was also a receiving center for Yolanda relief goods last year.

They have an afterschool program where school kids can come to do their homework, learn computer skills and some values education until their parents can pick them up after work. West Bay provides the services for free to kids in the neighborhood (where many Pinoy migrants live).

They have a program for senior citizens and also provide family support services. They have summer programs that give US-born Pinoys a cultural umbilical cord to the Philippines.

They have a new program designed to help high schoolers improve their SAT scores and qualify for college. Vivian just got funding from the city for the program she thought of because here as back home, good education is a way out of poverty.

Volunteers run West Bay programs. It is a wonder how they are able to put everything together with limited resources. The community spirit truly warms the heart.

Here is how Vivian describes it in her message on the West Bay website:

“I don’t know how many times I have cried at work, but not for the reasons you might think. Very often, I find myself holding back tears because here, in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods of San Francisco, I am exposed to the kind, generous and loving side of people every day.

“Parents of our youth one day unexpectedly told me that they want to help West Bay, as it provides its free services to their children. They are donating those little essentials that add up – items like paper towels, toilet paper, printing paper, and pencils.

“I ended up shedding tears in front of them, overwhelmed by this gesture. I have never experienced this in the corporate world.”

It didn’t escape me that the West Bay Center is just a skip and a hop away from San Francisco’s so called tenderloin district where so many homeless people have camped. Being hungry with little or no money and nowhere to go in a big foreign city has to be a horrible experience.

Many of the new Pinoy migrants can find themselves lost and alienated, disappointed at how their dreams of milk and honey evaporated before their eyes. There is now this stark reality of making a life in a strange city without friends and family support they had back home.

Often they have two or three jobs to make ends meet and send money back home. They have no time to guide their children, to even check their homework. This is where West Bay comes in to provide services that make life for the Pinoy migrants here a little more manageable.

  Then there are the older Pinoys trying to distract themselves from loneliness amidst other needs notably adequate healthcare. Sometimes, an opportunity to meet with old friends is enough for these seniors.

Vivian relates: “One of the highlights of my week is Thursday mornings, when our beloved seniors come for an unfunded program.  After a morning of Filipino songs, coffee and conversation, they hug me and our energetic and ever-patient Family Services coordinator Cecile Ascalon, and tell us how much they love us and appreciate us. Again, a big departure from the corporate world.”

And then there are the children. Vivian continues: “One little girl came up to me and gave me a little drawing of an angel that she said was me! Me, an angel? How can anyone remain unmoved by that?”

So true… Vivian an angel? Naturally skeptical and toughened by years of being a journalist, I am sure that would elicit some laughs in the old ABS-CBN Newsroom.

The heart and soul of West Bay are the volunteers and Vivian calls them out by name:

“When I watch my Youth Program Coordinator John Dizon and education mentor Kirstie Dutton at work, they inspire me with their passion and drive to serve. They started as volunteers, as students at the University of San Francisco (USF), and eventually applied to work at West Bay, because they believe in what we do for the community. To this day, we continue to enjoy the help of students from USF who regularly come to volunteer with us, thanks to our ten-year relationship with them.

“Cecile Gregorio Ascalon, our Family Services Coordinator, is a family and marriage counselor who got her degree from the University of the Philippines, and practiced at Ateneo de Manila University. Her patience with, and kindness to the people she helps, is amazing, and makes me want to be more patient and kind with everyone else.”

I found it heartwarming to see the folks at West Bay working together with the community in the bayanihan spirit of the homeland. Filipinos are now the largest Asian ethnic group in California but far from the most affluent.

There is only one Dado Banatao here, a technology billionaire who pilots his own private plane. The professionals, particularly in the medical and health care industries are doing well. But there are many old and new immigrants who are just managing to scrape by from day to day with long work hours and low pay.

This is why West Bay fills a need in the community. It bothered me to learn that Filipino teeners have a high drop out rate in high school here. The young Fil-Ams are behind their peers among the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Americans in academics.

Maybe it is because Filipino American parents are just too tired working to supervise their children like what the other Asian tiger moms are doing. Hopefully, West Bay programs designed to improve the odds will work.

I like the idea of Filipinos helping Filipinos in a foreign land. I am rooting for them to successfully produce a model other Overseas Filipino communities can follow.

Bayanihan is in our culture after all and we shouldn’t lose it specially in our communities abroad.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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