Staff and Board

Mentoring Staff

Owie Burns dela Cruz (Executive Director)

Owie is an Interest-Led and Self-Directed Learning advocate. She started homeschooling her kids in 2011 and discovered unschooling in 2017. Owie has taught communication and collaboration to other homeschooled teens. She was CEO of School in a Backpack, and Managing Editor for teen publication The Word 4U Today. She’s worn hats as events host, voice talent, dubber, newscaster, and scriptwriter. She has also done several talks for different corporations and communities about alternative education. The hat she is most passionate to don is Superpower Tapper: helping young people find their unique superpowers. To the teens that she mentors at Abot Tala, she is their “tita” (auntie) because that’s who she has become to everyone — always eager to help, cheer on, and support everyone until they reach their goals.

Michellan Sarile-Alagao (Program Director of Abot Tala Launchpad)

Mich is a communications professional with experience in the fields of book publishing, non-profit and development work, and knowledge process outsourcing. She has a double degree in Criminology and Psychology from the London Metropolitan University. She’s also been a freelance writer and editor since 2008. As an advocate of self-directed education, Mich continues to learn about various topics. She recently completed online certificate courses in Children’s Human Rights, Healing with the Arts, and Psychological First Aid. She de-stresses by knitting, watching K-Dramas, and listening to true crime podcasts (while knitting).

Joyce Buen (Fundraising Director)

Joyce Buen is an Art Management graduate, radio DJ, voice-over artist, theater performer, and director. Her theatre life started doing musicals with fellow homeschoolers. A member of the Ateneo Blue Repertory for the past 5 years, she has also worked outside the country with Curtain Raiser Entertainment in Malta, Europe. When she is not busy in the theatre, she is probably at the recording studio, radio station, an art gallery, or just at home, cooking for her friends or hanging out with her cats.

Ericho Fuentes (Academic Mentor)

Chemist, educator, and scientific researcher, Ericho has taught both science and non-science majors at the Ateneo de Manila University and has delved thoroughly into topics such as heavy metal contamination in Philippine mining sites. Aside from being the go-to math and science guy in Abot Tala, Ericho sees himself as one who can help learners realize their goals at the same time introduce them to other mentors and people who can help make it possible for them to reach their goals.

Icia Encinas (Program Manager of Abot Tala Junior)

Watercolor enthusiast, musical geek, and literature nerd, Icia loves art in all forms. A graduate from the University of the Philippines Diliman, Icia pursued an unpopular Bachelor of Arts Degree in Malikhaing Pagsulat sa Filipino. Her previous Creative Writing and Filipino teachers in high school inspired her to learn more about our country’s culture and literature. She found her passion for teaching when she worked as a preschool teacher for two years. She taught English, Filipino, Art, Music, and Movement to young children. The Philippines is home to many beautiful languages and Icia hopes to bring children and teens closer to appreciating our own language and culture in fun, engaging, and thought-provoking ways.

*Icia is currently on leave until the end of July.

Board of Directors

Joei Villarama (Founder)

As a university teacher in China — witnessing how the lives of students are constricted by the education system — Joei was compelled to research alternative forms of education. So she, her husband, and two boys took a road trip across America, visiting progressive and self-directed schools. This is where she came across the North Star Self-Directed Learning center for teens and its founder, Ken Danford. She proceeded to invite Ken to help start Abot Tala in Manila.  Prior to this, Joei has worked as a writer, urban planner, designer-architect, served in Congress, in the DSWD, and in a pharmaceutical company in Tianjin.  She is also an online entrepreneur and nature lover.

Laksmi Maluya

A second-generation homeschooler, Laksmi was independently homeschooled from preschool to high school along with her five siblings. Upon starting her own family with her husband, she proceeded to homeschool all their three children. In 2008, Laksmi founded Gopala Learning Haven, a homeschool support center based on a beautiful farm in Silang, Cavite which offers alternative learning to students from all walks of life. Aside from being the program consultant of the Homeschoolers Association of the Philippine Islands (HAPI), Laksmi practices the yoga lifestyle and promotes plant-based nutrition

Tinky Cruz

Whether it’s helping disadvantaged children have access to musical instruments or master planning an eco-farm, Tinky is a veteran of ten NGOs with causes ranging from giving scholarships to promoting entrepreneurship. She has made it possible for eleven libraries to be built in disadvantaged areas, has helped farmers co-op get off the ground and become profitable, has paved the way for the Orchestra of the Filipino to acquire resources (including laptops for young musicians), and has been a Corporate Social Responsibility proponent most of her life.

Phil Smithson

Phil is the managing director of a strategic design company with a mission to create meaningful change through the application of design thinking principles.  He has over six years training experience with senior leadership teams, managers, government, educators, startups and students from a diverse client base. He is the founder of The Failure School which aims to equip people with an entrepreneurial, problem-solving, innovation-focused mindset.  He wants to be a part of a movement that reimagines what and how students learn to ensure they acquire skills they need for the future. Phil facilitates The Failure School as a pop-up class at Abot Tala.

Diane Gabriel

Diane Gabriel is a homeschooling mom of 3 boys and wife to the Muffin Man. Her college days were filled with music and art as a choir member of the UP Vocal Ensemble and as a student of the UP College of Fine Arts. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Visual Communication, she worked for 5 years as an art director in a top advertising agency, working behind-the-scenes alongside writers, directors, photographers, and other artists. As a stay-at-home mom, after discovering that her sons were on the autism spectrum, she has embraced the unique and challenging but wonderful world of neurodiversity with the pursuit of child-led learning.

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