Questions in New York
When Jackie Zamora moved from the Dominican Republic to New York as a child, she faced many challenges. She had to quickly learn English as a second language so that she could communicate with teachers and peers. Her family had to find and juggle jobs and living spaces as they struggled financially. And growing up in a “tough neighborhood” and being respected as an immigrant left her seeking hope, and peace, and most of all – purpose.
Despite challenges, Jackie accepted that if she worked hard, she could find her space in the world, and make a positive difference for herself, for her family, and for others. She pursued higher education, and after earning her Bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies from Brooklyn College, she was ready to find a job that allowed her to help others in some way, and also to share the love that she had in her heart for diverse people and for life.
Then, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 happened.
“I found myself struggling again,” Jackie said. “There were no words. No words in English, or in Spanish, that could help me understand why and how people could hurt each other like that. I could not understand how our differences were something that could lead to hatred and violence, rather than connections and celebrations.”
She began meditating, seeking hope and strength through the silence of that prayerful practice. In 2004, she was still struggling with issues of “where do I belong” and searching for answers to what she could or should be doing in life – logistically, spiritually, and career-wise. That search for peace somehow brought her to Maryland.
Answers in Maryland
For nearly a decade after relocating, Jackie worked in different schools and programs helping youth with developmental disabilities. She worked as an aide in classrooms. She served as a one-on-one live-in and at-school support person for a child who needed her skills and guidance. And she responded enthusiastically when a music teacher asked her to help choreograph a music-and-dance performance piece for students with diverse special needs.
“My life was changed,” Jackie said of these experiences. “I saw that these kids – some with words and some without words – had an amazing ability to celebrate life, and express love and talent through music and dance! I found my passion, and it was rooted in my compassion for these children and teens.”
In September of 2013, Jackie Zamora moved that passion into a new program, and launched “ZamDance.”
Creating a Movement
ZamDance is a high-impact dance fitness program for children and adults with development and intellectual differences. Through the power and beauty and rhythm and freeness of dance, “Ms. Jackie” helps build confidence in her students, while nurturing cooperation, leadership, and other important skills for community-engagement, all while providing physical exercise, improved balance and endurance, and other health benefits.
And most importantly, each session becomes a space and place where all individuals can collectively express themselves – freely through movement – and create community and celebrate acceptance for who and how they are as unique and purposeful people.
The dance sessions are structured – which enables students to learn routines and anticipate various movements, and also to take turns as segment or song leaders. However, each child or adult is supported in moving at their own pace – so that they are empowered to engage meaningfully in anything and everything from passive movement to choreographed calisthenics to intense aerobic activity. All of this – while having fun, in a party like atmosphere… yes – the classes even include disco lights and international music!
The ZamDance organization also has a non-profit component – ZamMovement, Inc. – which supports children and adults with special needs who have financial challenges that would prohibit them from participation. And it was during a 2017 fundraiser for this part of the program that two organizations endeavoring to bring hope and unity to diverse people and communities began working together – in a partnership for peace.
Partnership for Peace
Jackie Zamora had known about Mattie Stepanek for many years, and was inspired by his messages of hope and peace. She had also grown to be friends with the owners of Botanero Restaurant, the neighborhood tapas bar that opened in 2016, and that began supporting the annual Peace Day Celebrations hosted by the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation shortly thereafter.
So on a warm July day in 2017, Jackie chose to learn more about Mattie’s message by moving through the event’s Peace Stations – a series of tents set up in the streets just outside of Botanero – each offering educational and recreational activities for youth and adults to explore Mattie’s message of “choices for peace.” She also wanted to support Mattie’s Foundation with a few Peace Day signature drinks during the concurrent “Guest Bartender” fundraiser inside Botanero.
“I expected to have some fun in the street and toast to peace at the bar,” Jackie said. “And I did! What I didn’t expect was that I would connect with Mattie’s mom, Jeni Stepanek – aka Mama Peace – in a meaningful way, and that I would really grow in my ongoing quest for peace. A journey that has now evolved into a partnership across our organizations.”
A key element of Mattie’s message is that peace begins within each person when basic needs are met. This includes more-recognized needs – such as food, water, and shelter; and also sometimes-minimized needs – such as education, healthcare, and security; but also often-overlooked (or dismissed) needs – such as trust and hope and purpose and other truths that build community.
Mattie said that tending to basic human needs enables us to “be okay with who and how we are as a person” – despite differences in strengths and needs and traditions and preferences and other realities. He believed that once we are able to say “I am okay,” we can root ourselves in other “I am…” statements – that express personal and community purpose.
We move from peace within to peace with others as we shift our focus from “I am…” to “We are…” and consider and tend to the basic needs of our neighbors “around the block and around the world,” so that they, too, can be “okay.”
Mattie reminded us that peace is not about being like others, or even always agreeing with others; instead, peace is about being with others – even amid differences – without judgement, and with purpose that nurtures kindness and compassion and community.
Jackie said that through participation in the Mattie’s Peace Day activities (both in 2017 and 2018), she realized that her personal “I am…” statement for peace within and with others is one of “acceptance.”
“In accepting and being okay who and how I am, and then in not only accepting, but also supporting and celebrating who and how others are, I feel peace, and I offer peace,” Jackie said.
“I am… acceptance! We are…a celebration of ability!” Jackie added with a smile. “That is empowering, and purposeful!”
Just two months after the 2017 Peace Day Celebration, Jeni Stepanek was raising a different signature drink glass in Botanero during another Guest Bartender event – this one for ZamDance/ZamDance Movement Inc. as the founder, Jackie Zamora, was celebrating the four year anniversary of her organization. “I didn’t know anything about ZamDance before that day,” Jeni said. “But I love the owners of Botanero, and I respect and appreciate their ongoing commitment to support community non-profits with their “Guest Bartender” events. So I am a regular there, and I try not to miss any of these fun opportunities to connect with others, and to learn about and help other organizations.”
Like Jackie at the July event, Jeni expected to have fun, and to toast to celebrating life at this September event. And, like Jackie, Jeni didn’t expect that the connection that was sparked during the summer would now grow quickly, and move forward into an amazing partnership. “But as I watched Jackie and the ZamDance youth and young adults moving and dancing and smiling, I was blown-away by the level of enthusiasm of the performers,” Jeni said. “I realized this was something far more than a nifty dance program for people with disabilities. This was a movement of love, and acceptance, which are roots of purpose and peace. It was amazing to witness dance as a common language that connected students and teachers, and performers and audiences.”
It didn’t take long for Jackie and Jeni to begin meeting, and considering how their non-profit organizations could be mutually-supportive. Jeni attended a ZamDance class as an observer-participant, and was again amazed at the level of enthusiasm, and “beyond impressed by the level of endurance these students maintain” throughout an intense session of high-activity dance. “Most of their teachers and aides are equally engaged with or alongside the students,” Jeni noted, “dancing and clapping and jumping and smiling” as they ensure that each student has the level of support that meets their needs for participation. “And, wow,” Jeni added, “the students really know their stuff. When Ms. Jackie began a combination of moves that were from a different song routine, the class quickly corrected her and showed her the right moves – which led to a round high-fives and smiles!”
During July 2018, Jeni introduced Jackie and ZamDance as the closing act during the annual Mattie’s Peace Day Celebration. The moment the music began, dozens of students jumped into action, with dance routines that provided class-act entertainment for hundreds of event participants who had gathered in the streets outside of Botanero on one of the hottest days of the year. It wasn’t long before the crowd was clapping and moving alongside the ZamDancers, and creating a growing community of smiles – and peace and acceptance – through dance.
And during the September 2018 ZamDance 5-year Anniversary Party two months later inside Botanero’s event room, after hours of dancing and toasting and celebrating life with families and community event-goers, Jackie introduced Jeni as her organization’s new Vice President.
Mattie’s message, and Jeni’s mission through Mattie’s Foundation, is all about purpose – which is essential for peace.
Jackie’s vision, and her mission through ZamDance, is all about acceptance – which is essential for peace. “Purpose and acceptance,” Jackie said during her anniversary party remarks. “Mama Peace helps us understand choices for peace, so that we can celebrate community. ZamDance helps us connect with love through the language of dance, so that we can celebrate life. It doesn’t get any more real than this!”
Jackie and Jeni are both looking forward to working together as they grow their organizations and fulfill their missions. “We each have some specific strengths, and we also have some specific needs,” Jeni said. “We will tap into each other’s strengths as we move our organizations forward in a collaborative way. And, we will reach out to the community – where there is an abundance of diverse strengths, and love and acceptance – both to fill in those gaps when we still have needs, and also to encourage everyone to simply gather together, and celebrate that peace is possible when we live and grow in community in this way.”
“I left New York with $50 in pocket, and with no clue about what I would or would not find in Maryland,” Jackie said. “For a decade, I searched for my purpose, for my place in the world, and for peace. When I created ZamDance five years ago, I began with one class, in one place, and a total of six students. Today, I am rich with purpose. ZamDance offers 10 to 15 classes a week all over Maryland and DC. We now have about 100 regular students, and many more participants with the groups that invite me in for special events or short-term programs. My hope is to keep expanding. I want ZamDance to inspire a growing celebration of ability, and to create communities of love and acceptance nationwide, and one day, around the world!
Jackie paused, and meditated for a moment during the conversation for this interview. “I left New York to seek peace. I left behind many good people, and have met many good people here, including Mama Peace. It is a privilege to know her, and I am so excited to know that we will be working together – with purpose that inspires acceptance,” Jackie said. After another pause, she added, “I left one home in search of peace, but now, I have a new home, in Maryland, where I celebrate and fulfill peace.”