A Birdwatcher, a Songwriter/Musician, a TV Actor and a Writer: Four More VNSNY Staffers with Hidden Talents!

In this third edition of Frontline VNSNY’s ongoing “Hidden Talents” series, we are pleased to present four more VNSNY staff members with fascinating hobbies that may surprise you!

Do you have a hidden talent that you’d like to share in Frontline, or do you know someone else at VNSNY who does? We’d love to hear about it. Please email us with your hidden talent!

Juan Flores: On the Hunt for Bird Sightings

Second from right, Juan Flores with fellow birdwatchers.

To physically strengthen himself following a 2009 hip replacement surgery, Juan Flores, Administrative Services & Facilities Project Planner, decided to take up hiking. This led him to try other outdoor activities as well, and he found that birdwatching made for an interesting hobby. “The feeling of peacefulness and learning about nature are what hooked me,” says Juan, who has been with VNSNY for 33 years. Now, he ventures out every other weekend in all seasons but summer, either with friends or by himself, to explore various birdwatching locations within a three-hour radius of his Bronx home.

On one occasion, Juan traveled to the dunes of Long Island’s Jones Beach on a freezing winter’s day immediately after a snow storm, in hopes of spotting a snowy owl, which migrates annually from the Arctic to Canada and the northern U.S., but is rarely seen in the New York area. Juan arrived at 7 a.m. and started his search for the owl, finally locating it several hours (and miles) later. As Juan put it, “If I’m waiting that long, I’m going to see the bird.”

The snowy owl Juan photographed on Jones Beach.

Juan notes that New York City offers plenty of bird-sighting opportunities, too: Over 200 species can be seen in Central Park alone. Early last May, he recalls, a sighting was reported of a rare and endangered Kirkland warbler in Central Park. The following day, Juan visited the park and spotted the Kirkland warbler on the park’s west side. The news spread through the internet, attracting birders from up to five hours away.

A regular participant in the Stateline Hawk Watch Count in Northern New Jersey and a Board member of the Bronx River Sound Shore Audubon Society, Juan encourages everyone to make an effort to appreciate nature as he does. “There’s a world out there that’s beautiful,” he notes, “and there is so much to enjoy.”

Shoshana Averbach: Sharing Songs of Healing

For VNSNY Home Care social worker Shoshana Averbach, her life-long love of music began with piano lessons at age eight. Since then, her instrumental skills have expanded to include guitar, flute, and violin. Shoshana also began writing music as a teenager. “I take a challenging life experience and work through it by writing a song,” she says. “It’s a spiritual, therapeutic process.” Along the way, she has created two albums, providing all of the melodies, lyrics, vocals, arrangements, and instrumentation. Shoshana, who has been with VNSNY since 2010, also received a master’s degree in music therapy from NYU, and uses this training with her clients on occasion. Together with therapeutic touch and emotional freedom technique (EFT), she uses music to help reduce anxiety.

Shoshana has performed professionally for decades, playing in more than 90 venues, many of them geriatric facilities. She plays guitar and sings in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Spanish, performing as often as three times each month. “It’s not entertainment,” says Shoshana, “it’s musical healing, making the audience feel good.” Shoshana says she herself gets a “helper’s high” from performing. “One of the wonderful things about music is that it’s universal,” she notes. “it touches a deep part of the soul, and can reach people regardless of their physical or mental well-being.”

Shannon Harris: At Home on the Stage

Shannon Harris shown here during an episode of Marvel’s “Luke Cage” on Netflix.

The path to her most recent “break” as an actor—her “parallel career”—has been a long and interesting one for Shannon Harris, who has served as Physician Fellowship and Medical Staffing Coordinator at VNSNY Hospice since 2012. It started with a junior high school play in her hometown of Washington, DC: “I felt truly at home on stage,” she remembers. Shannon earned her BA in English (with a Theatre Concentration) at Barnard College and an MA in Classical Acting at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and also studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles. She has appeared on stage in New York City, London, and Los Angeles; in regional theatre, with a particular focus on Shakespearean roles; and in new media. While Shannon loves both stage and film acting, she feels the small and (someday) big screens hold the most promise for maximum visibility and success as a professional artist.

“My biggest ’break’ to date has been my supporting role on the current season of Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix, where I play Gwen McIver, the mother of Bushmaster, this season’s villain,” she says. That role required two days filming on a set in Brooklyn and an additional day of shooting on location in Kingston, Jamaica. As gratifying as it is to have something outside her day job that “makes her heart sing,” adds Shannon, she also enjoys her hospice work and appreciates her clinician colleagues at VNSNY. “It is tremendously fulfilling to manage the fellowship program and support my colleagues who provide direct care to hospice patients and families,” she says. “I have the greatest admiration for them, and I’m honored to support their work.”

Jose Bonilla: Expressing Himself with the Written Word

Jose Bonilla on set of “America’s Got Talent.”

Having recently completed his first year as Special Investigator for VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans, Jose Bonilla reflects on his first days in New York after emigrating from the Dominican Republic at age five as a time that continues to shape his adult life. Because his inability to speak English made school a challenge, Jose says, “Self-expression became my life’s goal.” The many ways Jose has realized that goal include his selection by a talent scout at age 18 to appear as an extra in the 1979 film The Warriors. In 2011, a relative filmed him performing his uncanny vocal imitation of a trumpet. “The video, ‘Mr. Human Trumpet,’ was posted to YouTube and received 25,000 hits,” notes Jose, “leading to my appearance in a skit on America’s Got Talent.”

Jose’s real passion, though, is writing. In 2014, he published his autobiography, The Faith in Me, which focuses on how the human spirit can overcome life’s tragedies—including Jose’s survival of both 9/11 and a shooting in a former workplace, well before he came to VNSNY. Jose is proudest of his latest work, Franco the Great, his ghostwritten biography of a noted 90-year-old Harlem street artist (born Franklin Gaskin). Jose spent four hours every Tuesday for a year interviewing Franco to make sure he got the story right. What mattered most to him about the project was “Franco’s gratitude,” says Jose. It’s a reminder, he adds, that “being able to express yourself creatively can help bring a smile to yourself and others.”

Do you have a hidden talent that you’d like to share in Frontline, or do you know someone else at VNSNY who does? We’d love to hear about it. Please email us with your hidden talent!