With 20 years of success in Play House Preschool and B.R.I.G.H.T. Academy, Allen Zaldariagga continues to be an inspiring figure with her positive outlook on life, genuine care for those she meets and an effervescent inner joy that catches on.
When spending time with Allen Zaldariagga, her innate cheerfulness is contagious, spilling over in enthusiastic stories, cheerful greetings and the most genuine bouts of heartfelt laughter. Tita Allen to the students of Play House Preschool and B.R.I.G.H.T. Academy, and in effect everyone else, she walks around the campus after class, striking conversations with the lingering students. At one point, she picks up a paper flower that some of the girls were working on and admires it up close. “It’s so beautiful, are you going to make some for me?” she jokes, which the students gamely agreed to do.
It’s the kind of amiable exchanges that make Tita Allen a beloved fixture in the lives of the B.R.I.G.H.T. Academy community, every one of which she treats with familial care. “The culture here is really like a family,” she says. “I started something where I treated everyone like they’re my children. I don’t want it to become too big to a point that I don’t know anyone.”
That may be so, but the school has already grown significantly since its beginnings as Play House at a garage in Paradise Village 20 years ago. “John, our eldest son, asked me ‘mom, what do you really want to do with your life?’ and that made me think. I really love kids, and at the time, we had our one-year-old son Michael so I decided to start a preschool with five children, with Michael as one of the students,” she recalls. Of course, teaching wasn’t something that she just thought of on a whim. She had studied at the Colegio del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus in Iloilo, where she graduated as an AB English cum laude and Most Outstanding Student awardee, as well as the editor- in-chief of the school publication The Voice. Back then, the school nuns had already asked her to spend time teaching little children, so the choice seemed like an obvious fit. She carried out the school functions completely on her own, working as a teacher and marketing the school to other residents of the village at the same time. “It really started small, then word got around with my friends, who started putting their kids in. From five, it turned into ten, and then 20.”
As a result of the steady expansion, the school has changed campuses twice, with a location just outside the gates of Maria Luisa and later to their more permanent site along Gov. Cuenco Street in Banilad. For Tita Allen, though, B.R.I.G.H.T. had just grown up together with her pioneering students. “I didn’t see it as an actual school, more of just a preschool,” she admits. “But when the kids were in kinder two, they didn’t want to leave and the parents were asking me to go up to grade school. So I said, ‘okay let’s try grade one.’ We really grew up with the children one year at a time.” The same thing happened at the first sixth grade graduation, with kids reluctant to leave for another school. “Everyone was telling me that high school was tough, but the kids didn’t want to go, and I started with them and saw them grow up, so I carried on.”
Now, B.R.I.G.H.T. Academy has about 700 students from preschool to high school, with many of their graduates going on to prestigious universities in the country and around the world. “Here, our school curriculum is always evolving to address the needs and challenges the students face in the local and global community,” high school English teacher Vert Reyes explains. The dynamic approach to education keeps B.R.I.G.H.T. current, and the competent faculty admits that they too are encouraged to learn with the students and challenge themselves to continuously do better.
Of course, it isn’t always about being in the classrooms. “Aside from the high academic standards, we have a balanced education, which allows the students to experience so many other subjects,” says the school superintendent Dr. Alan Ferguson. This includes a wide range of extracurricular activities where students can find their own interests and develop talents as they grow. “It plays an important part in our school, whether its sports, music or performing arts,” Tita Allen adds, describing Voices of Children, an activity where the students are encouraged to develop public speaking skills. In fact, B.R.I.G.H.T.
has exemplary English standards, encouraging students to read and attend various school events like Book Month and character role-playing.
Keeping up with its curriculum, the school boasts of facilities to cater to educational and extracurricular needs. Besides the bright and airy classrooms decorated with student art and encouraging posters, the buildings sit around a sprawling open field with Little Tikes play areas and a soccer field to encourage interaction while outdoors. Towards the back of the school is a large gym, where the young athletes can play basketball and tennis, or do laps in the swimming pool. The home-economics room mimics a charming country kitchen, although kids take their meals at the fully air-conditioned cafeteria, which boasts of an extensive menu from the in-house chef. But probably the room that best embodies the school spirit is the Discovery Park, a 1,200-square foot playroom, which has a mini-community of houses and stores, a ball-filled playpen and a number of developmentally appropriate toys.
“Well, we really believe that one of the foundations to make a person a better individual is to build self-confidence and self-esteem. We provide various experiences for the kids to find what ticks for them, so it’s building on their strengths so they can develop passion and confidence,” shares school headmaster Neil Montesclaros. “We also believe in training kids to be self-reliant. They learn to be creative in coming up with solutions. Also equally important is our belief that the quality of the school cannot surpass the quality of its teachers. The teachers make the difference, and that is something we espouse in B.R.I.G.H.T. Academy.”
It’s a philosophy Tita Allen understands by heart. “At the end of it all, it’s not the building, but the people,” she says. “Because what would I do if it were just me? I have this culture I want to share and nobody helps me.” Thankfully, there were and her said culture has become one to make the B.R.I.G.H.T. community close-knit and warm, embodying that line in Play House’s catchy radio jingle ad that goes “the school with a heart.”
“I want everyone to be happy,” she enthuses. “Despite what you go through in life, nothing should stop you from that. It’s really a decision you make, to try to go on and be happy.” Everyone who sits down with her immediately understands the contagious power of Tita Allen’s bright smiles. She has a firm but personal approach to leadership that is integral to keeping the institution productive, but she also makes sure to create a warm environment to make everyone feel appreciated—from an elaborate Hollywood-themed sit-down dinner for last year’s faculty and staff Christmas party, to handpicking and personally wrapping special gifts. “I guess if you really care about the people you work with, then you do what you can to make them happy,” she explains, a gesture that is clearly recognized.
“We are all Tita Allen’s children!” says high school head Meann Rafaeles. “The environment in the school is very much like family—from the students, teachers, guards, kuyas, office staff. When she arrives in the office in the morning, she greets each of us with ‘Happy Morning!’ and it’s a wonderful way to begin the day.”
“She really does have a big heart,” adds Neil. “Her genuine personal care and affectionate warmth is always disarming. I really try to emulate her in this way. She has a way of honestly telling you where you stand with her, and yet convey it with sincerity. I have great respect and admiration for this woman, knowing the many things she has gone through in life.”
One such thing is her annulment, a situation that she now talks about with grace and wisdom. “You know, it’s not the end of the world,” she says. “I think it should just make you strive to do better and do what you need to become a better person.” One way of coping had been to join marathons, a feat that she now proudly narrates having finished a recent 21k run in Singapore. “I’m a half-marathon runner,” she says, referring to how marathons are traditionally 42 kilometers, “but I’m still very proud. I started with 5k and made my way up to 10k and 12k and I was so amazed that I could do it.” She’s even done the 25k Cebu 3-bridge marathon, and plans on doing more – proving she still has an upbeat energy despite turning 63 this May.
Countering obstacles with hobbies that effect positivity is an outlook that many of today’s world- weary folk should adapt. “I don’t see things as problems,” Tita Allen shares. “I don’t like the word problem, it feels heavy and it becomes hard for you to solve it. I see it as a situation, as a learning experience.”
When she does feel her spirit waning, she retreats into the Happy Room, a corner of her bedroom where she keeps her books and does arts and crafts, or schedules quick yoga sessions on her house’s scenic garden. “Like when I was feeling a little tired earlier, I had to switch and do my yoga,” she admits. “I need that calmness of spirit back because the world can get noisy, and I need to get back and refocus.”
A central part of her downtime, though, is spending it with her family. “Playing with my grandchildren and being with my children, that’s very important to me.” Besides the Sundays spent at home, the family goes on trips to Boracay, Hong Kong or Los Angeles together, with six grandchildren in tow. “Enjoy it!” she advises on how to travel with kids. “I think you have too many dos and don’ts, you lose the focus. I’m a very organized person, but I know when to switch it up and say let’s have fun.”
Quality family time is something her children look forward to as well, looking up to their mother as an example of strength and passion. “Whether it’s a B.R.I.G.H.T. Academy school activity or a 21k run she’s joining, my mom gives it everything that she’s got,” eldest son John Pages shares. “She has so much energy, enthusiasm and love for all that she does. Her passion is infectious.”
Her only daughter Cheryl Pages-Alba says she developed a deeper appreciation for her mother as she grew up. “My four brothers will attest to this, that my mom never made us feel like we weren’t good enough,” she recalls. “No matter what we did, she would always tell us how proud she was. Even my brother Charlie still gets a note on his door from my mom with sweet words of encouragement from time to time, and my other brother Randy knows that our mom is always cheering him on at his gigs. I don’t think there’s a better word to describe her than nurturing—it’s in her DNA. I guess because of her positive reinforcement, all of us don’t want to settle for mediocrity in our chosen field of interest. It is so much easier to be your best when your mom believes in you.”
The same wholehearted support is now bestowed on her grandchildren, who she dotes on with time and attention. “My mom knows that in order to win the love and trust of a child, you have to really be there for them,” Cheryl shares. “You should see her when she’s around my daughters. You’d think she was the same age as them!”
The close-knit ties Tita Allen created in her own family was a product of her own relationship with hers back in Iloilo, where she grew up. Growing up as an only daughter as well, she continues to be very close with her brothers, who she visits often.
Truly, Tita Allen is an inspiration to everyone around her. “Many of us dream of making a difference in this world, but very few actually have the willingness to translate that into action,” says Carmen, mother to B.R.I.G.H.T. Academy student Feliz. “She continues to help shape the lives of so many children by her sheer passion for creating in them a never-ending sense of awe in the beauty of learning while in a fun- filled and caring environment—all from something she established in her garage 20 years ago. I bet there isn’t one single Play House or B.R.I.G.H.T. Academy student who doesn’t have Tita Allen on their list of people who made a difference in their lives and that, I think, is her greatest achievement.”
When asked personally, though, Tita Allen reveals that the legacy she wants to leave the children is relatively simple. “Believe in yourself, and that you can do things,” she insists. “I don’t know why people have to sulk and complain about a lot of things. You can’t help but love life. That’s why I’m always smiling, because there’s so much to be thankful for.” In her case, when she needs a change in perspective, she gains life lessons from sitting in a class where it all started in the first place. “The preschoolers give me a reality check. They make life so simple.”
- by Shari Quimbo
- sittings editor David Jones Cua
- photography Dan Douglas Ong
- hair and makeup Jessie Glova