MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Two South Orange-Maplewood School District parents turned a Scottish tradition into an opportunity to benefit the local nonprofit Achieve Foundation, raising more than $3,500 through a Burns Night celebration at the Woodland in Maplewood on Feb. 6.
Piers and Adrienne MacWhannell brought the customary festivity honoring renowned Scottish poet Robert Burns to the area for the first time after previously celebrating it in their native United Kingdom, and the event proved to be popular. According to Adrienne MacWhannell, more than 120 residents attended the party to enjoy a buffet of traditional food such as “chicken Bonnie Prince Charlie” and participate in Scottish dances, including “Dashing White Sergeant” and “Strip the Willow.” Several men dressed in kilts for the occasion while some attendees even tried haggis, which is a pudding containing sheep’s heart, lungs and liver. While the haggis received mixed reviews, the Scottish whiskey was a hit, she said.
Overall, the MacWhannells succeeded in bringing to South Orange and Maplewood a taste of Scottish culture, which Piers MacWhannell said is significant to the couple considering they met at the University of Edinburgh. And though the two towns are already richly diverse, he said they thought holding a Burns Night celebration would go over well since it is not a well known gathering in the United States.
“We thought it might be quite fun,” Piers MacWhannell told the News-Record in a Feb. 5 phone interview. “It’s just something a little bit different you don’t see every day.”
Burns Night was certainly new to Tara Connell of CKO Kickboxing, who served as a sponsor for the event. Connell told the New-Record she had never before experienced the festivity but loves learning about other cultures, and was excited to support the MacWhannells in putting it together. The fact that so many residents of different backgrounds were willing to join in shows the type of community South Orange and Maplewood truly is, Connell said.
“It really is wonderful that everyone is so open to new ideas and experiencing a new thing,” Connell said in a Feb. 5 phone interview. “It’s a good feeling to be part of this type of community.”
Connell said she also sponsored Burns Night as a way of supporting the Achieve Foundation, which raises money to fund school district programs and improvements. As a parent of young children in the school system, she said she especially appreciates the work the foundation does to supplement tax dollars and thought the event would be a great opportunity to assist it in that cause.
Benefiting the foundation was also a key reason the MacWhannells held Burns Night in the first place, Piers MacWhannell said. Like Connell, he said they have children in the district and have been impressed with the school system and its teachers. He added that they wanted to find a way to give back to the district while helping other parents in the area. The Achieve Foundation proved to be their ideal cause.
“It sounded like a great idea to try and help them out,” Piers MacWhannell said. “It’s a great charity.”
The Achieve Foundation is certainly grateful for the assistance, according to Executive Director Deborah Prinz. Though many families throughout the district contribute to the foundation in a by hosting dinners through the nonprofit’s annual Night of 100 Dinners initiative, Prinz said it is rather unusual for couples to organize events on their own, and said her organization is appreciative of the MacWhannells. They did a good job, Prinz said, describing the event as a “delightful” community affair that everyone seemed to enjoy.
The more than $3,500 the evening collected will not go to waste. Prinz said the foundation intends to use those funds to support its grant programs, which pay for new educational equipment and projects requested by teachers and administrators, and Achieve’s tutoring program, which pairs struggling students with trained volunteer tutors. She said funds will also go toward the nonprofit’s current campaign to increase access to science, technology, engineering, arts and math education — or STEAM — in all grade levels through introducing maker spaces and robotics programs.
Those plans come after a successful 2015 for the Achieve Foundation. Last year alone, Prinz said her organization gave out approximately $90,000 through its grant programs and held a free Maker Madness event promoting hands-on activities that attracted roughly 1,000 people. The nonprofit also recently completed its push to fully restore the Columbia High School Auditorium, donating $450,000 to fund details like architecture refurbishments and new chandeliers that exceeded the district’s capital budget.
Though residents might have missed their chance to contribute to the Burns Night fundraiser, Prinz said the foundation always welcomes donations. She encouraged everyone in the South Orange-Maplewood community to contribute because helping the school system benefits more than only those with children in it.
“Everyone who lives in these towns has an interest in ensuring that we have the best possible public education program for our students,” Prinz said in a Feb. 8 phone interview. “Everybody knows that having good schools is essential to attracting new families to the community, and I think we’ve been extraordinarily successful in doing that.”
In the near future, the Achieve Foundation will once again offer its Night of 100 Dinners as well as its second Maker Madness event, which is currently in need of sponsors. While there are currently no plans to do another Burns Night next year, Prinz added that the foundation is looking forward to working with the MacWhannells again.
“I’m fairly confident that they’ll be supporting the Achieve Foundation in one way or the other in the future, and we will be very grateful for whatever effort they want to put toward that,” Prinz said. “We’re very happy to have them as part of our circle of supporters.”
To learn more about the Achieve Foundation and how to become a sponsor for Maker Madness, call 973-378-2055 or visit www.achievefoundation.org.