By Anya Bochman
Debbie Sontupe, the executive director of the Morris Educational Foundation (MEF) and a resident of Morris Township along with her husband Dan and their two children, has a lifetime worth of experience living and working in Morristown.
An alumna of Morristown High School, Sontupe has spent over 25 years working in fundraising, communications, non-profit management and consulting, having obtained both her BA and MA from Rutgers University. Sontupe’s past positions include serving as vice president of institutional advancement at Mercy College in New York and campaign manager at the Rutgers University Foundation, as well as several leadership roles in the YMCA.
The transition to directing MEF, a non-profit corporation that strives to enhance educational opportunities for more than 5,200 students in all ten schools of the Morris School District, was a natural one.
“The Foundation works to enrich and inspire the academic pursuits of all our students, from preschool through high school,” the organization’s mission statement reads.
The primary goal of MEF is to generate and distribute financial and various other resources to the Morris School District for enrichment programs and projects aimed at improving the quality of education for local students.
To this end, MEF focuses on facilitating student development by supporting new approaches to improving scholastic achievement, raising funds for enrichment activities and providing equipment and facilities that are not funded through other means.
Morristown Onstage is a paramount aspect of the organization’s fundraising efforts. MEF’s premier fundraiser, the event is a unique showcase of amateur acts of all ages performing in the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown every February. Past acts have included singing, dancing, band performances, comedy, poetry and, incredibly – whistling.
“About 13 years ago, the [Morris School District] Board of Education wanted to create an event for public schools that would both have longevity and celebrate the community. We dreamed up the idea back then,” Sontupe said. “Last year, we raised $143,000 and showcased hundreds of people cheered on by their friends and neighbors.”
At the time of the event’s inception, as Sontupe explained, reality talent competition shows such as American Idol and The Voice were very much in vogue – and Morristown Onstage was based around a similar model of showcasing raw talent. This year’s sold-out event is emceed by Tara Bernie, an Emmy-nominated correspondent for DailyMail TV and a Morris School District parent.
The actual contest takes place on Feb. 27 and features seven acts in the “under 18” category and eight in “19 and over”; among the performers are singers, bands and ukulele and saxophone players. The finalists for the event were introduced to the public on Media Day, which took place on Jan. 5, when the performers gathered for interviews and a group photo.
“We’re proud to be the organization that spotlights Morristown talent,” Sontupe said of the finalists.
Tickets for the show went on sale on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at the MPAC box office and website. Other means of support for the event included sponsorship packages that started at $1,500 and ran up to $25,000. These packages included a level for every business, as well as perks such as advertising, tickets and the opportunity to gain exposure to over 25,000 households in Morristown. This year’s sponsors include Atlantic Health System, Modera 44 Apartments, Provident Bank and Salerno Duane, among many others.
Supporters also had the option of becoming benefactors through individual sponsorship or advertising in the Morristown Onstage playbill.
“This year, we’re celebrating the unique history of Morristown and our show,” Sontupe stated. “The community will be really proud.”