By Jackie Hardy
NDG Contributing Writer
“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members,” a quote from the late Coretta Scott King, American author, Civil Rights activist and widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. TJ Johnson, former Department of Justice Assistant U. S. Attorney, and Donna Hartman, retired educator and former Coordinator of Plano ISD Academic Diversity office, are inarguably the very standard of compassion and their compassion for others is evident in the volunteer work they tirelessly give each year at the Plano International Festival (PIF).
Under the tenure of former Plano Mayor Pat Evans (2002-2009), Johnson was selected to serve on an advisory committee called, Multicultural Outreach Roundtable (MCOR). MCOR was established to promote inclusion of Plano’s growing diverse community and to give a voice in local government.
According to Johnson, the vision and leadership of Pat Evans to establish MCOR and her foresight to see the changing cultural landscape of the city, is the genesis to the Plano International Festival.
“Her idea when she called us together was for us to think about how can we be opening and welcoming…in particular to people of other countries, ethnicities, and other cultures,” explains Johnson.
Currently, Plano has a 44% minority population, per the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau and 1 in 4 Plano residents were born in another country (source: Dallas Morning News March 2020).
The Plano International Festival has an emphasis on celebrating the diversity of the various cultures comprising the close to 300,000 people that call Plano home.
For almost two decades, an estimated 20,000 Plano residents have flocked to Haggard Park, located at 901 E. 15th Street and Avenue H, to participate in the Plano International Festival, but for the last two years the city and festival organizers have had to postpone this in-person event as a result of the pandemic.
On October 15, the wait is no more as this popular event returns kicking off at 11 am to 5 pm.
Partakers will be able to come and enjoy a range of festivities consisting of live entertainment, free healthcare services, and a variety of food trucks to satisfy the many diverse pallets of the over 100 cultures represented.
The Plano International Festival will also offer kid-friendly activities that foster engagement, learning and fun. Each year, children can enjoy the STEM interactive exhibits to discover and learn about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Other kid activities include Plano Symphony Orchestra Instrument Petting Zoo, Plano fire trucks for children to tour, and Plano Animal Control Services provides a variety of animals for the children to pet and interact with.
Also, kids will be able to travel to different countries via Passports to the World by visiting various booths, where they are able to get their passports stamped.
“The Rotary Clubs usually works with us to create these beautiful passports for our visitors. They get to go to the different tables to learn about different cultures..,” advised Johnson.
Kids are encouraged to visit as many countries throughout the day where they can receive a prize for learning about the different cultures represented at the festival.
The Wellness Fair is also one of the festival’s staple events thanks to major sponsor, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Plano and thanks to the organizing efforts of Hartman, who serves as the Wellness Coordinator.
The Wellness Fair will begin at 10 am to 1 pm at the Plano Courtyard Theater, located within Haggard Park Historic District and a Fitness Fair will also be available as well.
“We are honored to support the Plano International Festival in its commitment to celebrate cultural diversity and raise awareness of the many ethnic communities that make up our city,” sentiments shared by Mary Jo Dean, Director of Community Relations of Texas Health Presbyterian, via an email response to North Dallas Gazette.
At this year’s event, festival attendees will be able to take advantage of the many free physical and mental healthcare services being offered such as, but not limited to: mammograms, flu shots, HIV testing, dental, and other baseline health screenings.
“I look forward to seeing all the people. We have such a diverse community and to see everyone in the same place enjoying themselves, getting information, and health services that they need really makes me feel good,” adds Hartman.
This undertaking requires months of planning as Hartman explains a large part of what she does is building and fostering relationships and managing communication with the vendors throughout the year. In addition to coordinating the Wellness Fair, Hartman also coordinates securing food truck vendors.
“I work pretty much year round on this. I really start getting ready in January,” states Hartman.
After 12 years of volunteering, Hartman advises this is a labor of love as she sees her community service as a part of honoring the legacy of volunteering engrained in her as a young child.
“Mrs. Hartman is passionate about providing health and wellness services and education for those who attend the International Festival. She understands the need these families have and often times their inability to access services necessary for living a healthy lifestyle,” adds Dean.
Dean also shared how important it is to have the festival return this year. The two years of postponing the event has been hard especially for many of the residents who benefit greatly from the many free health services.
Hartman advised they are targeting to administer close to 600 flu shots this year. She also advised the healthcare services will include all ages as early as six months. There will also be interpreters onsite to assist attendees as needed.
Johnson sees her community service as a privilege and a responsibility. As one of the longest serving volunteers, Johnson’s name is synonymous with the festival. She has served in dual capacities as both the coordinator and emcee for the live stage program.
“TJ is super diligent about ensuring we have broad representation via the stage program. We want to look truly international on stage and we strive to have performances from all continents. She does an amazing job with that,” expressed Linda Adler, Vice President of Publicity for the Plano International Festival, via email to NDG.
In addition to her emcee duties, Johnson also leads the efforts in planning and organizing the Naturalization Ceremony, where according to Adler, they usually naturalize between 50-75 individuals. The ceremony is complete with all the pomp and circumstance of a formal affair.
“An important part of our opening ceremony is a parading of the flags, there are usually about 75-100 flags from different countries. We have the Sons of the American Revolution, the Plano Police Department brings us the Color Guard; and then, we have some delegate of the city provide us with a Proclamation…” describes Johnson.
In past ceremonies, Johnson has secured Federal Judge of the Eastern District of Texas, Honorable Amos Mazzant, III to preside over the Naturalization Ceremony and this year Honorable Sean Jordan, also a Federal Judge of the Eastern District, will officiate.
For Magesh Kandavadivel, Plano and the Plano International Festival holds a special place to he and his wife, Vinitha’s hearts. Plano is where they decided to live and raise a family.
So, after they both successfully completed the process to American citizenship, it was only appropriate they commemorated this special milestone in the very city they had come to call home.
“It was October of 2009 and my daughter was 5 years old, she just started school in Plano ISD. It was a cold day and I still remember that day, it was so special,” he shared.
Kandavadivel has joined the ranks in volunteering as he now serves each year in helping to coordinate activities for the children to do at the festival. He best described why he enjoys volunteering.
“It is a privilege to work with these special women every year,” he states.