In May of 1987, the SEF was granted 501(c)(3) status enabling donors to take a tax deduction for any contributions they made to the organization. Initially, funds were raised by raffles, membership drive mailings and the sale of Suffield sweatshirts and memorabilia in Autorino’s drug store. In the first two years of the organization’s efforts, $10,000 was raised for such things as a video microscope, parent workshops, library books, graphing calculators, and a CD Rom workstation. Newsletters were published annually and sent to residents who paid the $5 membership fee.
The SEF continued raising money over the next decade and in 1996 changed its name to the Suffield Foundation for Excellent Schools (SFES) to avoid confusion residents were having between the Foundation and the Suffield Education Association, which is the teachers’ union. In its first decade, the SEF had raised $50,000 and awarded 30 grants to the school system to fund many worthwhile programs and equipment, including a fish farm for the VoAg department, equipment to start the publishing center at the elementary school, a portable indoor garden, a paperback library for the middle school and calculators for the fifth grade.
A membership drive in 1996-97 resulted in enrolling 600 members in the SFES. In 1997-98 the membership newsletter floated the idea of establishing an endowment fund to sustain the work of the SFES. It so happened however, that Kling, who had been president of the foundation, and its driving force for over 10 years, could not sustain his involvement due to a heavy work travel commitment. It was also about this time that the town’s budget constraints were easing somewhat and the foundation became all but defunct.
In August, 2000, however, a donation of $20,000 by Erwin Grimmeisen, in memory and honor of his wife, Erika, who was a teacher at the West Suffield Elementary School, caused then Board of Ed member, Dan Mackinnon, to attempt to revitalize the SFES. Mackinnon took the helm and recruited other residents to form a Board of Directors. An annual appeal for funds in October, 2001 resulted in the addition of $10,000 to the SFES coffers. Prior to this time, the SFES spent virtually all the funds it collected each year on grants to the school system. Due to Mr. Grimmeisen’s generous donation, the Board had the beginning of an endowment fund and realized that it needed a strategic plan which could see the SFES through lean times and allow it to maintain its existence.
In late 2001, the Board applied for a TAG (technical assistance grant) from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Using that money, the Board chose Donna Zalichin, a professional development consultant with much experience in dealing with nonprofits, to help them analyze the SFES’ strengths and weaknesses, and develop a plan to transition from an organization that spent what it took in annually to a foundation with an endowment. At two half-day retreats in July 2002, the Board established its mission statement and four “overarching goals”: build awareness of the need for a strong, excellent public school system; support educators in developing and implementing creative and innovative programs and experiences in the classroom; look for unmet needs in the public schools and raise funds to address those needs; and finally, develop and fund programs that supplement enriching the curriculum.
With the new high school opening in September, 2002, the Board launched a “Seats of Honor” program wherein a minimum donation of $100 would purchase a personalized brass plate to be affixed to a chair in the new Center for the Performing Arts. The money raised would go towards the purchase of a concert grand piano for the Center. Those giving $250 or more were additionally recognized on a wall plaque outside the Center. The drive brought in $25,720 and aided by a grant of $10,000 from the Amiel Zak Public Service Fund, the SFES was able to purchase a beautiful piano.
As a result of their work with the consultant, the SFES Board determined that it needed to raise its profile in the community. To do this, they decided to hold a dinner dance auction, “Springtime in Paris” on March 22, 2003. The auction raised close to $50,000 and became the SFES’ signature event. There have been annual auction dinner dances since then.
Also in 2003, in keeping with its mission to support excellence in education, the SFES established an “Excellence in Education” award to be bestowed upon an outstanding educator in the Suffield School system as well as a Hall of Honor to honor those graduates of Suffield High School who have gone on to achieve exceptional success in their respective fields. Every four years nominations are solicited for this prestigious honor and 6 individuals are selected. The first “class” featured venture capitalist Michael Zak; microbiologist Richard Williams; Grammy Award winner Mark Sulllivan; Russian historian expert Bruce Lincoln; first black vice president of the Phoenix Norman Edmonds, and educator Robert Cecchini.