‘Jersey Girls’ Benefit Concert to Raise Money for Autism New Jersey

Erin Pedrini
Web Production Assistant

Students and performers at the 2013 Autism New Jersey benefit concert. Photo courtesy of Larry Weiner.

“My son was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. He is 25 now but when you are involved in autism your whole life, you appreciate the organizations that provide really critical and important services to families, and Autism New Jersey has been with us the whole time,” said Montclair State University Professor Larry Weiner.

His students in the Public Relations Student Society of America Montclair State University chapter, as well as the Fairleigh Dickinson University chapter, are coming together for a benefit concert Thursday, May 1 to raise money for Autism New Jersey called “Jersey Girls.” Performers will include Tony Award Winner Laura Benanti, comedian Sunda Croonquist, international star of “Dream Girls” Gia McGlone and 11-year-old musical prodigy Jodi DiPiazza.

Croonquist — director of the LA School of Comedy, host of “All Star Comedy” at the World Famous Laugh Factory of Hollywood and host of “James and Sunda” on JLTV — said that she is performing at the event because of her personal experiences with families with autistic children. Croonquist said that she watched her daughter’s best friend, who has a form of autism, go from being non-verbal to verbal and seeing that happen was mind-blowing for her.

“Having been exposed to the life of an autistic child is mind-blowing because they are talented, creative, brilliant and the lack of communication or ability to communicate has given them a stigma that should no longer be attached. I believe that society needs to be educated and that these families need more than just financial support. They need societal support as well. The more you know about these children, the more you grow to understand and love them,” said Croonquist.

This is the third year that the MSU PRSSA is holding this event. Croonquist has performed at all of the previous events and she said, “The energy is overwhelming. Everyone has an autistic story and there is going to be someone that you know that has autism or someone you know that knows someone with autism. The New Jersey autism rate is on the rise and that is my home state. It is not a disease, it is a condition. Being from the state and seeing all of these families going through so much stress and strain, laughter is the best medicine.”

Weiner said that Autism New Jersey provides families with various resources that they need to take care of their special needs child. He said that the organization provides training for teachers, paramedics, emergency service personnel and legislators, so Autism New Jersey serves an important role in the state. He said that smaller organizations like Autism New Jersey depend on fundraisers like this.

“When I perform at these events, the best experience is seeing the children and their unconditional love. They love it and they love to laugh. They feel special and they know that they are special because they are brilliant, and just me treating them normally is one of the facets of why I do this,” said Croonquist.

Croonquist has worked with autistic teens at the LA School of Comedy as their teacher. “I had the opportunity to work with them and oh my god, how funny and talented! When they laugh, it is music to your ears! It was one of the most rewarding experiences working with these students as their one-on-one comedy coach,” said Croonquist.

Besides comedy, another form of the arts that has helped autistic children is music. Weiner said that DiPiazza, who has a form of autism, was a very quiet child. He said that once she started singing and taking music classes in school, it brought her out of her shell and now she is more talkative than ever.

According to Weiner, “Jersey Girls” is a great event because it not only helps raise money for a great cause, but it also shows the college students that an event can run exactly how it is planned. He said that having the students help plan events like this gives them real experiences that they can put on their resumes.

“Weiner has dedicated so much of his time and even with his own experiences, struggles and challenges with autism, he still goes out there and tries and he gets me out there every year without a problem. I will do it without hesitation,” Croonquist said about the benefit.

“Comedy is the common denominator that brings people together. I believe that and I believe that comedy heals. And it is healing for both families and the autistic child themselves. When they see people laugh and it makes them feel good and everybody wants to feel good,” said Croonquist.

“Jersey Girls” will be held in Memorial Auditorium, located on Montclair State University’s campus, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 1. Tickets are $10 for students and $15 for non-students. All are welcome to attend and tickets can be purchased online, in the communications office at MSU or at the door. All the performers are New Jersey natives. Benanti is from Kinnelon, Croonquist is from Paterson, McGlone is a New Jersey native and MSU graduate and DiPiazza is from Rochelle Park.