Founder Elton Lugay says TOFA search for ‘best and brightest’ goes nationwide

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Elton Lugay delivers welcome remarks, as emcee Boy Abunda exits stage. Photos by RJ Ensalada

Elton Lugay delivers welcome remarks, as emcee Boy Abunda exits stage. Photos by RJ Ensalada

By Cristina DC Pastor

Perhaps you were one of the skeptics, you were one among countless doubters. But through its bumpy yet engrossing six-year run, The Outstanding Filipino Americans or TOFA remains in place, expanding its jurisdiction as an important search for the best and the brightest FilAms.

Elton Lugay who founded TOFA in New York with some friends in 2011 had misgivings it would get this far. He had no resources, no knowledge about organizing an awards night at Carnegie Hall, and no clue what he was getting into. All he had was the seed of an idea. He and his friends wished for a vehicle that would honor Filipino American achievers in the most spectacular way possible. At Carnegie Hall, with breathtaking entertainment, without the burden of fundraising. That act of selling tickets tends to diminish the awardees’ honor and depreciate their professional accomplishments. The objective was simple enough, but logistics was monumental.

“We want our awardees to sit back, relax, and feel special,” Lugay, a community events organizer from Cebu, told The FilAm.

He himself cannot believe how much TOFA has grown.

“I never thought it would reach six years because it’s hard to get support from the community for someone like me who is not known to many,” he said.

Neither have his co-creators, who have since moved on to other things, but continue to support the effort. This leaves Lugay and a new set of partners the supreme responsibility of organizing TOFA-NY year after year in celebration of Filipino American History Month in October.

TOFA-NY’s previous honorees are among the community’s trailblazing FilAm professionals, artists, entrepreneurs, educators, advocates. Just to name a few, there’s Ridgway, PA. Mayor Guillermo Udarbe for Public Service; Rockette Christine Sienicki for Entertainment; humanitarian haircutter Mark Bustos for Courage of Conviction, restaurateur Nicole Ponseca for Food & Restaurants; Tony Award winning actress Lea Salonga, Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia Journalism School Sheila Coronel, and Oscar Award-winning songwriter Bobby Lopez as Heritage Award recipients.

TOFA’s keynote speakers are leaders in their field. CEO and philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis and federal judge Lorna Schofield share their life reflections and wisdom. Like Consul General Mario de Leon Jr. who has been with TOFA from day 1, they understand what drives Filipino immigrants to do well and succeed and celebrate their hard-earned accomplishments.

At TOFA, the hosts, carefully selected, are individuals noted for their advocacy as well as their celebrity. Thus, Jose Antonio Vargas of Define American, former model-now-indie filmmaker Bessie Badilla, Rappler founder Maria Rezza and Asia’s famous talk show host Boy Abunda have hosted TOFA and shared the stage with the winners and speakers like one big gifted family.

“Our large and thriving Filipino population is an invaluable thread in the fabric of our city,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a message.

Facebook voting
TOFA began as a social media-driven search, an exciting Facebook contest measured by the number of Likes and Shares and assured in its fairness and transparency. Unfortunately, some nominees, albeit a handful, attempted to con the rules until Facebook was no longer the right place to play nice. The TOFA board decided to move away from FB voting, with a panel of community leaders making the final selection.

“The biggest challenge is to prove to the community that what I’m doing is beyond myself, that TOFA is beyond its founder,” said Lugay. “It may be hard for some people to believe how much I care about our community. I simply wanted others to see how great Filipinos are and how we celebrate their greatness.”

This year’s TOFA (October 8 at Carnegie Hal’s Weill Hall) is simply The Outstanding Filipinos in America, widening its search for excellence beyond the New York metropolitan area. With corporate sponsors pledging their support, Lugay is confident TOFA will soon become a “nationwide celebration” of Filipino American History Month.

Lugay remembered how Judge Schofield once told him how she wished her mother was still around so she could see her speak at Carnegie Hall.

“Masaya na ako nun,” he said.

Heritage Awards recipient Lea Salonga urges young artists to never give up on their dreams, with keynote speaker Loida Nicolas Lewis by her side.

Heritage Awards recipient Lea Salonga urges young artists to never give up on their dreams, with keynote speaker Loida Nicolas Lewis by her side.

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