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Education, philanthropy key goals of the American Asian Women's Association

Women from any ethnicity with an interest to learn about Asian cultures and traditions are welcome to join the Lakewood Ranch nonprofit.

Hayleigh Vuong, Sriya Ashok, Marguerite Barnett, Imelda Pallen Berry, Francis and Malloy McCaffrey, Romal Boldadora and Aegean McCAffrey perform at the Asian Talent and Fashion Show.
Hayleigh Vuong, Sriya Ashok, Marguerite Barnett, Imelda Pallen Berry, Francis and Malloy McCaffrey, Romal Boldadora and Aegean McCAffrey perform at the Asian Talent and Fashion Show.
Courtesy image
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Despite the name, the American Asian Women’s Association is not just for women of Asian descent.

The group promotes Asian culture but is all inclusive when it comes to its members.

“I’m not Asian. I was married to a Chinese man, so that might count for something, but the thing is that it’s not just Asian folks,” Vice President Tillie Ren said.

President Maria Cora Gaffar said the club’s purpose is to make people aware of Asian cultures and traditions, so membership only requires $25 in annual dues and an interest to learn more. But the group also supports area nonprofits of all kinds with funds it generates.

The only people who can’t join are men, but they’re allowed to attend the events and meetups. In addition to the monthly meeting, the club gathers for lunches and happy hours.

Each year, the club holds a fundraiser that showcases their mission through fashion and dance. One year, the fashion show included wedding garb from various Asian countries. The significance of each garment and dance is explained to the audience as part of the presentation. 

Tillie Ren, Maria Cora Gaffar and Sandy Wickramanayake oversee the American Asian Women's Association.
Photo by Lesley Dwyer

“Americans are very bland. We wear white,” Ren said. “The wedding garb (in various Asian cultures) is beautiful and different. Some wear pants with a long shirt.”

In China and Korea, brides typically wear red. Gaffar is from the Philippines. She gave the Filipino Tinikling Dance as an example.

“It simulates a little rice bird during harvest time," Gaffar said. "They like to dance from one area to the other.”

The nonprofit's major fundraiser raises about $10,000 each year, which is split between the Manatee County Food Bank, Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center and the Student Scholarship Fund at the State College of Florida. 

The annual fundraiser is attended by about 100 people each year and has been around for as long as the club—12 years. Offering translation services is one of the newer ways the club is reaching out to the community. 

Between the 20 members, they have five different Asian languages covered. Treasurer Sandy Wickramanayake is from Sri Lanka, where over 22 languages are spoken. She speaks the country’s official language — Sinhala.

While the dialects vary, the club has bilingual members from the Philippines, China, India, Sri Lanka, Korea and Italy thanks to Ren. 

“They can call and request translation, we can then look at our member list and see who would be the most suitable,” Gaffar said. “We’re hoping people will take us up on that offer.”

Gaffar is a founding member. When the club started, there were only four women, which grew to 40 members before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

“Most of the clubs around are very ethnic. You’re either in a Phillippinne group or an Indian group,” Gaffar said. “It follows that you want to be with others that share the same culture, but I said, ‘We are a diverse group here in this area, why don’t we have a diverse group of women who come from different Asian countries and make it inclusive?’”

The group meets on the last Thursday of the month. They used to meet at Town Hall and might resume that next year. Since COVID, the group has held meetings via Zoom. The meetings include a presenter, which varies from week to week. 

Zoom has limited the presentations somewhat, but they’ve had financial planners and other speakers that work on a virtual platform. In person, the presentations are more hands-on. 

They often have cooking demonstrations. Since there’s no kitchen in Town Hall, presenters will bring ingredients and a finished dish for members to taste. Members give presentations, too. They talk about the country they’re from and its customs and traditions.

One week, Selby Gardens brought in orchids and explained how to care for them. Orchids are native to the tropical regions in Asia.

The club has an open door policy. Many members bring guests to the meeting, so any women in the Lakewood Ranch area are welcome to attend before becoming a member.



Lesley Dwyer

Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.

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