SOUTH ORANGE, NJ - South Orange Village President Sheena Collum celebrates her birthday each year with a "Party with a Purpose," and this year was no different. In celebration of her 34th birthday, Collum raised more than $12,000 to tackle food insecurity at Columbia High School (CHS).

While Collum's official birthday "Party with a Purpose" was on Saturday, November 18, fundraising for the cause took place over about 2 weeks, with the more than $12,000 raised coming from 200 donors, who are primarily residents of South Orange and Maplewood.

“I think many of us often take for granted that despite being seen as affluent towns, we have neighbors in our community who live below the poverty line, and the struggle is real,” Collum told the crowd of over 100 guests on Saturday night.  “This isn’t a hand out, it’s a hand up. Our students—and all students—deserve all the love and support in the world to help them achieve their goals, and in this case, we're helping do that one meal at a time.”

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The money raised by Collum will be used to pay down lunch debts and establish a weekend program for high school students facing food insecurity. The programs will be a collaborative effort of the South Orange Maplewood School District Parenting Center, MAPSO Cares, Rent Party, and SOMA Justice, shared Collum.

Sophie Bard, a student at CHS and co-president of the student group MAPSO Cares, noted that the organization started with just three students and now has more than 15 members who worked with community groups to launch "Cougars Cares,” a lunch-for-all and weekend backpack program.

 “The first set of backpacks overflowing with food went out to six students this past Friday," said Bard.

“In our school district, about one in five students receive free or subsidized lunch, and we believe many more are food insecure,” said Susan Bergin and Shannon Cuttle, SOMA Justice members and program co-leaders. “It is on us, all of us, to fight hunger. The generosity shown through this fundraising effort models for our youth how we can work together to support community members in need.”

Speakers at the event also thanked Marilu Gregory and Karen Weiland of the SOMSD Parenting Center for their continued support and for providing guidance to students. 

Collum also thanked Patty and John Brown-Christenson for hosting the event, and Diana Hart for providing food and desserts.

"Party with a Purpose" attendees and donors included elected officials from the two towns: South Orange Trustees Stephen Schnall, Walter Clarke, Deborah Davis Ford, Karen Hilton, and Mark Rosner; and Maplewood Township Committee members Nancy Adams, Greg Lembrich, and Committeeman-Elect Dean Dafis.

Also supporting the "Party with a Purpose" were Board of Education representatives Elizabeth Baker, Anne Marie Maini, Susie Adamson, Donna Smith, Madhu Pai, and Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad. CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron was also in attendance.

“Our mission to fight hunger in our community was met with a generosity that was hard to believe. Let's keep the momentum going to fight food insecurity for our Columbia High School students by visiting and donating online. Please put CHS in the note so we know where this money should go," said David Wegner at the event.

Photos are by Matt Peyton