Festival celebrates Hispanic heritage

REECE — The Villa of Hope celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month during a first-time festival that the Villa’s families and staff hope will become an annual tradition.

Angie Perez, vice president of compliance and quality, came up with the idea and pulled together a team of 17 fellow employees to coordinate the Oct. 4 celebration at the Villa’s campus on Dewey Avenue, explained Christina Gullo, chief executive officer.

"We want to become more culturally sensitive and become culturally educated," Gullo said. "This is a fun event that as a community we can all participate it. We’re hoping it gets bigger and better."

The Hispanic Heritage Festival included a dance demonstration, storytelling, music and a performance by Avenue D Afro-Latino Dance Group. Allison Macri and Kyle Critelli, who will perform as Maria and Tony in the upcoming "West Side Story," also sang two songs from the classic musical. The Rochester Latino Theatre Co. and Rochester Area Performing Arts are presenting the show in November.

Initially, Perez said that she had suggested a Latino-based cooking activity with residents at one of the Villa’s cottages.

"It went from a cooking activity to this (event) in seven weeks," she said.

As the event continues to grow, the Villa also would eventually like to open it up to the Greece community, added Gullo.

"We want to be good neighbors … and people could learn about what we do," she said.

The Villa serves about 2,000 youths and helps them overcome emotional and behavioral challenges through residential and community-based programs, said spokeswoman Natalie Anderson. About 70 youths live in cottages on the 42-acre campus, and the Villa operates group homes, she said. Generally, the youths are referred to the Villa’s programs by family court, Gullo noted.

About 30 percent of the youths served are Hispanic, she said. To help all the Villa’s youths learn more about the culture and to prepare for the festival, students in art classes made Latin American flags that were used as decorations, Gullo added.

During the festival held outside its school building, younger family members could make their own maracas and try out traditional Latin instruments including bongos and castanets.

The event’s face painting table was also popular. Even Rubie Frens got her face painted after two of her three children did. Her oldest son, Antonio, receives in-home services through a program where Villa staff work with him and take him out to improve his social skills.

And the festival was beneficial to all the families who came out, Frens added.

"It’s good for the kids to find out where they come from … and learn about other cultures," she said.

Andrew Holland said that the festival was a nice way for the youths to learn about other cultures and just have fun.

He especially enjoyed the dance instruction led by Frances Hare, added Holland, 20.

"Seeing everyone act goofy, I think it was very nice," he remarked.

Holland is enrolled in the Villa’s Community Apartment Program and is getting ready to take his GED through an Urban League of Rochester course, he said. The apartment program helps young people ages 16 to 21 transition from foster care to living on their own in one of the Villa’s apartments in northeast Rochester, according to villaofhope.org.

"The Villa has helped me … (and) kept me off the streets," Holland remarked.

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