Mardi Gras party raises money for schools

Photo Courtesy of Claire Sinclair
People dance to the zydeco music of Big Mamou at the Achieve Foundation’s Mardi Gras night.

MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — There were a lot of things to like at the Achieve Foundation’s Mardi Gras night but Committee Chair Barbara Cokorinos’ favorite was the wide range of ages among those in attendance.

“The people attending crossed generations,” Cokorinos said. “You had to be over 21 but there were definitely people whose kids had graduated from the district and then also parents of young kids just starting out and then in the middle, too.”

More than 200 people attended the event and more than $20,000 was raised, which was well above the initial goal of raising $15,000, said Eileen Neri, executive director of the Achieve Foundation of South Orange & Maplewood.

“It was really fun, a really eclectic mix of people,” Neri said. “There were lots of familiar faces but plenty of people we didn’t know, which was great.”

Achieve, which is the education foundation for the district, has handed out more than $4.5 million since its creation in 1987. It is overseen by a board of 20 community members.

The organization runs a volunteer tutoring program with more than 300 tutors available to all students in the district. It also hands out grants, about $115,000 a year for the last two years.

“We have a really robust grant program,” Neri said. “We give out grants in two cycles throughout the year. We give one out in the fall and one for the second semester.”

The grants are used for a range of things from professional development to special programing, assemblies, author visits, books and other things that come up.
Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor said that the district is thankful for the partnership with Achieve.

“They are always willing to review innovative ideas and approaches submitted by our educators that extend beyond our customary funding model,” Taylor said. “This supports the creativity of our teachers and administrators as they pursue outside-the-box ideas and scholarly-researched new ideas that can help our students to reach their academic and social-emotional potential.”

Saturday’s event included the Cajun zydeco band, Big Mamou, plus food by Ruthie’s of Montclair, and an auction of various donated items.
The most money, $600, brought in via the auction items was for a weekend at a country home in Pennsylvania’s Americana Region. The most popular item to bid on, however, was a framed custom illustration of “your” home by Samuel Taber-Kewene, a Columbia High School student ($230).

Other items up for bidding included pizza for a year at Village Trattoria in Maplewood ($420), triathlon coaching with Triumph Coaching ($100), Mets tickets ($375) and a private guided wine shopping session with wine writer and speaker Hank Zona of the Grapes Unwrapped ($250).

The event also included a performance by cast members from the upcoming Columbia High School production of “Something Rotten!” The show will be performed at the high school over the next two weekends.
This was the third Mardi Gras event for Achieve with the last one coming in 2020, just before Covid hit.

For a long time, the organization’s biggest event was “Night of 100 Dinners, where several people opened their homes to guests on the same night.

“We did it for close to 20 years,” Neri said. “It started as people hosting 10 guests in their homes. It grew and grew and grew and we had more dinner parties that got bigger and bigger but the criticism of that was you might not get invited to a party if you didn’t know someone who was hosting.”

The Mardi Gras event was created to fill that gap, Neri said. In addition to ticket sales and auction items, Saturday’s event also had sponsors, including Edrington, which was a top chef sponsor.

Up next for the foundation is Maker Madness, which is a STEAM fair with free hands-on activities. It’s scheduled for April 29 at Columbia High School.