Almost $6,000 – which is double the amount collected last year – was raised for Autism New Jersey by Montclair State’s chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) during the organization’s fifth annual fundraising event on April 11. The show takes place every April, which is Autism Awareness Month.
Over 200 audience members attended the event, which was titled “Jersey Stars” this year. Performances included acts by Broadway performer Stephanie J. Block, singer Don Ciccone from The Critters and Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons and stand-up comedian Sunda Croonquist.
“It has grown, both in terms of audience size and fundraising, and on stage as well,” said Larry Weiner, public relations professor and PRSSA adviser. He went on to say the autism fundraiser began as an idea he had five years ago, when the PRSSA chapter at Montclair State was still new.
“We decided to do something modest,” Weiner said. “The event was actually held in one of the dance studios. It was very small, but we did so well and have just continued to do it every year.”
The event took place in Memorial Auditorium and attracted more prestigious performers than in past years. This was the second time Block provided her talent to the fundraiser.
“The cause is close to my heart,” Block said, who explained how she has a niece who is autistic. “When I was approached last year, the title [of last year’s event] ‘Performers for a Purpose’ sounded so incredible and was something I just wanted to be a part of.”
Block also described the community atmosphere and the youthful energy at the event, which are the aspects she most enjoys. “It’s an important cause. It really is,” she said. “It’s locals coming together at a passionate level — there’s not a lot of money to be made and nobody is going to be famous from this evening — it is really about putting your heart in the right place. It’s about people who come together to make a difference.”
Croonquist has lent her talent to the autism fundraiser every year since its conception. “My concern comes from communication with autistic children daily, who I have also taught at my studio, and because my aunt introduced me to a book called ‘Joey the Mechanical Boy,’ written by the guy who coined the term ‘autism,’ when I was very young,” she said.
Compared to previous years, Croonquist said the crowd was much larger in size and very enthusiastic this year. “And I know next year will be on a much higher level,” she said. “Autism is for everyone. You’ve got to remember that.”
Ciccone was the newcomer to the PRSSA autism fundraiser. “The cause completely convinced me,” he said. “If there was a way I could wave a wand and get rid of this affliction these poor children suffer from, I would.”
Ciccone explained that he thinks autism might also be something which people simply do not fully understand yet, referring to cases in which autistic individuals have become very successful musicians, chess players or teachers. “Regardless, it is a kind of thing that needs attention brought to it because, from what I understand, it is difficult sometimes for them to comfortably blend into society,” Ciccone said.
The show was full of passionate acts by the three headliners, along with performances by Montclair State’s Freshman Revue and the Paper Mill Playhouse Broadway Show Choir. The audience clapped and cheered along with every number.
“It was terrific. Everyone was great and it was extremely varied — Broadway, comedy and rock music,” said attendee Jerry Nardella.
Another audience member, Joan Murray, said, “I think it was excellent, and I really can’t think of many worthier causes than autism research.”
The students of the PRSSA who organized the event, were also satisfied with the outcome. “The whole show turned out well with all of our efforts,” said Cynthia Huasipoma, PRSSA secretary.
Jessica Bacher is a member of the Montclair State chapter of the PRSSA.