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School of the Heart

A dynamo creates a preschool specifically for the needs of families in her community.

Watching the scene at the Faith, Hope & Love Child Care & Learning Center makes it easy to forget the setting: an abandoned Waipahu warehouse. Preschool children gather on the carpet to stack blocks, weigh beads on a small scale and attempt to read books to each other.
Victoria Almosara
Photo: Val Loh

At a nearby table, a foster grandparent-retired men and women who volunteer their affection and guidance to the youngsters-patiently works a puzzle with a 2-year-old boy. A song signals the end of free play and the beginning of circle time, which starts with a prayer. "Be with our friends who are not feeling well," says teacher and preschool director Karen Cruce, slowly enough for the children to remember and repeat. "Be with Mommy and Daddy, take them safely wherever they go and help them to have a good day ..."

School founder Victoria Almosara proudly surveys the smiling faces engrossed in the Montessori Christian integrated curriculum at the school, which is associated with Springs of Living Water, a faith-based, nonprofit social service agency. About half of the students have single mothers who are low-income or on welfare, and subsidies for tuition and hot lunches are available to those who need them.

The energetic Almosara personifies the school and its principles. Many huli huli chicken sales, grant applications and donations later, there's a new playground, and her latest project involves raising $118,000 to build a full-service kitchen. But touring the nicely appointed, fully air-conditioned building gives one the sense that Almosara accomplishes everything she sets out to do. And then some.

Indeed, if there is a venture to help those in need, the 60-year-old Almosara has most likely done it. Raised in the Philippines by parents who were both pastors, Almosara grew up helping others, and she and her three siblings all became pastors. After college, she married her brother's classmate, the Rev. Rodrigo Almosara. Together they had six children and 13 grandchildren, and started several churches and community service projects in the Philippines.

"Our heart was to reach out to the poorest of the poor after calamities," she says.

A series of personal events brought them to Hawai'i in 1993. Immediately, Almosara went to work doing what she did best. She and her husband started a church and a separate social service agency, from which she initiated community training programs to help new immigrants and mothers on welfare become proficient in English and computer skills.

Her little endeavor has since expanded to 17 programs, including courses in citizenship, car maintenance and culinary arts through the Waipahu/Kapolei Community School for Adults. Many of her students become teachers at the adult school.

Amazingly, she managed these adult programs, opened the preschool, distributed food to the poor, returned every year to the Philippines for missionary work (and sent stuffed animals, clothes and canned goods on a monthly basis), and most recently battled thyroid cancer-all while working full time for the past 12 years at the Susannah Wesley Community Center as the unemployment case manager. Her cancer is in remission, and she retired last month to devote all of her energy to the preschool.

"People say to me, 'Victoria, how do you find sleep?'" She laughs, because the answer is she doesn't. "We're just doing this out of our passion for helping people."

Almosara started her school with three staff and three students, one of whom was her own granddaughter. Now beginning its fourth year, the preschool has 36 children, nine staff and 11 volunteers. One of those is Almosara's 80-year-old mother.

"When my father died, she was kind of lonely and depressed, so I recommended she come to work," Almosara says. The multigenerational atmosphere makes the room feel like a particularly busy family room in a loving home.

But this is more than a good environment that instills values in children. It helps parents as well. Previously, many had no way to find jobs, because they didn't have childcare. So the cycle of dependency on social services continued.

Remedios Gante was a single mom looking for childcare for her 2-year-old daughter in 1999. She lacked skills and confidence. So she began to volunteer in the classroom with her daughter. Almosara hired Gante as a part-time office clerk, sent her to workshops and recruited an accountant to train her. Soon, Gante was earning money, while keeping a watchful eye on her daughter, who has asthma. Now Gante is the full-time office manager and helps Almosara with grant applications.

"[Almosara] doesn't pressure me in anything," says Gante. "I feel like I'm so free, and I'm taking the opportunity to serve the school better. I use my time wisely. It really helped me a lot to grow and learn." Other single mothers have volunteered or worked part time at the preschool while their children were in the classroom, and they, too, have moved on to successful jobs.

Lorenza Corros Lorenzo, Almosara's mother, says her daughter "is very industrious and talented. She works all the time; she does not feel comfortable when she's not doing something. She's really a blessing. It's not because she is my daughter, but it's really the truth. Her husband is very lucky to have her."

It seems the community is, too.

Making a Difference is presented in partnership with Hawai'i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai'i's people.

For information: www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org.

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,October

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