LOOSE ENDS 5/8: The upsides of a virtual gala

The D&R Greenway’s virtual gala on Saturday, May 9, welcomes the public as it honors land preservation advocates Phyllis Marchand and John Rassweiler, who are receiving the 2020 Donald B. Jones Conservation Award.
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The D&R Greenway’s virtual gala on Saturday, May 9, welcomes the public as it honors land preservation advocates Phyllis Marchand and John Rassweiler, who are receiving the 2020 Donald B. Jones Conservation Award.

By Pam Hersh

My friends are worried that the COVID-19 social distancing has made me go off the deep end – into a pool of Cheetos dust. I have proclaimed to them and to anyone who will listen that this social isolation thing is just my cup of tea – and cup of coffee, glass of Diet Coke, bag of Cheetos and bowl of popcorn – particularly when it comes to attending fundraisers.

For decades I have declared that I would pay NOT to go to fundraisers, not to wear shoes that kill my feet, not to eat a huge meal very late at night, not to make small talk in a very loud voice over a very loud band. I am no misanthrope. I love the people and missions being honored, but hate the messaging vehicle. And thanks to this crazy, scary, challenging time we are in now, I have jumped with joy into a brave new world of virtual fundraisers.

My virtual social calendar is crowded. On May 2, I attended the McCarter fundraiser honoring the legacy of McCarter Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann. On May 9, I will be attending D&R Greenway’s gala honoring land preservation advocates Phyllis Marchand and John Rassweiler. The money I would have had to spend on clothes, hair, shoes, nails, transportation, makeup, (and in the old days babysitters), I am donating to the organizations. I am wearing the same comfy ripped sneakers, jogging tights and Stevie Wonder sweat shirt to next weekend’s event as I wore to last weekend’s event. Best of all, no one took or is taking my picture with one of my most favorite companions – a pint of mocha chip ice cream, a passion I share with one of the awardees (guess who).

Last year, Mann announced that the 2019-20 season would be her final run as McCarter Theatre Center’s artistic director and resident playwright. On May 2, McCarter recognized Mann’s legacy as a nationally renowned and transformative arts leader, playwright and teacher by re-naming the McCarter LAB in her honor. In addition, the theater would host, in her honor, a virtual fundraiser, a live-streaming event featuring her theater colleagues extolling her extraordinary talent, contributions and humanity. Before the event, I kept thinking about how sad and impersonal it was to honor her by means of a computer screen. But actually the reverse was true. The Zoom presentations were
extremely moving – and it moved a lot of people to make a donation as they were watching. The fundraiser featured a plethora of big names in the theater world, toasts, stories, and a pictorial stroll down memory lane. I, along with the 1,000 people viewing the event, all had front row center seats.

Taking the stage on May 9 is an awards event whose purpose is to get as many people as possible to tune in and get turned on by the mission of D&R Greenway. D&R Greenway Land Trust is in its 31st year of preserving and protecting natural lands, farmlands and open spaces throughout central and southern New Jersey.

It has natural appeal, especially after the beautiful weekend of May 2, when the state and county parks were re-opened and walkers appeared like dandelions – appropriately socially distanced – throughout the open spaces. The D&R Greenway, whose efforts have preserved 21,000 acres in central New Jersey, is honoring at its virtual gala two Princetonians, famous for many civic volunteer accomplishments, including, their passionate commitment to land preservation.

Princeton TV (linked to the Greenway website for those without cable access) will broadcast the Virtual Gala, a pre-recorded awards ceremony and tribute videos on May 9 at 5:30 pm. For donors/sponsors/ticket-holders to the gala, there will be a special “after party” via Zoom with the awardees and special guests, including the family and friends of the deceased Michael Snyder. The Snyder team is winning a community service award for funding and building the new “Iron Mike Trail,” accessible from Rosedale Road, in memory of committed outdoors enthusiast Mike Snyder.

“While it is not safe to gather together physically, we can gather electronically to celebrate two great pillars of the Princeton community who have contributed mightily to preserving land, former Princeton Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand, and business executive John Rassweiler, who served longer than anyone on the D&R Greenway Land Trust’s board,” said D&R Greenway President and CEO Linda Mead.

The D&R Mission, said public relations consultant Brad Fay, resonates particularly well these days of social isolation. “D&R Greenway’s ‘Our Open Space is Open’ messages are getting attention nationally and locally, as people today realize more than ever how critical preserved lands and a daily dose of walking is to their health and well-being. D&R Greenway’s awardees were way ahead of the curve as champions of open space and trails. A gift to D&R Greenway is a gift that keeps on giving forever. The gala is about celebrating nature and lands and the people who have done amazing work to make that preservation possible. We are honoring these two amazing Princetonians. I have had the distinct honor to interview them both via Zoom to hear their stories and philosophies about they have worked so hard to preserve lands.”

Honoree Phyllis Marchand served 23 years as an elected official in Princeton Township, including 12 years as mayor, before retiring in 2009. She became involved with D&R Greenway when the non-profit preserved land in Princeton, namely Greenway Meadows and Coventry Farm. She joined the D&R Greenway Board of Trustees in 2010 and served as chair from 2016 until she retired from the board in 2019. An ardent advocate for preservation of open space and the environment, Phyllis has used her leadership platform in the community to convert hundreds (Pam Hersh being one of them) to the D&R Greenway cause.

“I care about D&R Greenway because I care about the legacy I will leave to my grandchildren and to all future generations … take care of each other, take care of our planet and enjoy ‘Land for Life!’” said Phyllis, an avid runner (now an avid walker, she admitted), who has completed 18 marathons in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

I know John Rassweiler, only by reputation, as someone who has been extremely active on many community non-profit boards, including the D&R Greenway board, where he served for more than 20 years. I can’t wait to “meet” him at the benefit on May 9. True to his open space passion, he owns and manages a registered tree farm in Vermont.
A successful businessman, he retired 25 years ago in order to go to work – by volunteering for non-profits.

“D&R Greenway is one of my lead charities because its objectives have been consistent and are ones I strongly support. Its organization and execution always have been at a high professional level,” Mr. Rassweiler said.

The leadership teams of both D&R Greenway and McCarter are aware of the challenges of this COVID-19 era and the new virtual fundraising strategies. But as Mann so eloquently phrased it, as the camera Zoom-ed in on her, “Art is about risk. Great works of art by definition are risky.” These creative fundraising techniques are works of art – and I hope the community – in spite of the many problems barreling down on us – can appreciate and embrace these creative new techniques with gusto – and mocha chip ice cream, also a Phyllis Marchand favorite.

To learn how to participate in the May 9 event, visit drgreenway.org. The virtual gala will be broadcast on Princeton TV public access and drgreeway.org. Special access to the Virtual After Party will be provided to ticket holders and sponsors. Virtual party-goers who support the gala will be able to connect with the honorees via Zoom, and sponsors will also be acknowledged in the film credits.