In the past year, I have been introduced to so many wonderful people and groups in New Jersey through our "What's So Great About the Garden State" feature. But this week's story, I know very well. Tina Witowsky is a former high school classmate of mine, and she and her mother Mercedes are dear friends. They are both extraordinary people. 

Tina Witowsky of "Tina Tunes" (Photo courtesy of Mercedes Witowsky)

Back on Oct. 25, 2006, Tina Witowsky, a 16-year-old junior at Morris Knolls High School in Rockaway Township, suffered a ruptured arteriovenous malformation that caused brain trauma similar to a massive stroke. Known for her effervescent personality and powerful singing voice that she showcased in Morris Knolls' choir groups and stage productions, Tina soon embarked on a grueling recovery that continues a decade later.

For the first 15 months, Tina lost the ability to speak. But she has come so far in her rehabilitation that she not only is talking again, but also singing. And not just singing for her own enjoyment. She is entertaining others.

Each month, Tina tours nine facilities in North Jersey, from Horizon High School for special needs students in Livingston, to multiple Merry Heart senior care and assisted living residences. She performs for an hour straight — a challenge for any professional singer, though she claims not to get tired. The repertoire is mostly of her own choosing (Billy Joel being her longstanding favorite), but she also takes requests.

The volunteer initiative is called "Tina Tunes."

"Tina Tunes" in action (Photo courtesy of Mercedes Witowsky)

It began with the theory that "if Tina could bring song and her beautiful, God-given vocal talent to other people, that she could actually use her talents to make others happy," Mercedes Witowsky, Tina's mother, said.

Mercedes has been Tina's tireless champion and an equal partner in her recovery from those first uncertain moments. The strength of the bond between mother and daughter is apparent to anyone who meets them — especially when Tina's personality shines through.

"This is all volunteering that Tina does," Mercedes said. "Maybe someday she'll actually get paid for one of her hours, but right now —"

"Just out of love," Tina finishes, her timing (as usual) perfect.

Mercedes said that early in the recovery process, no one could say how life would turn out for her daughter or their family, but it was clear there was a purpose for Tina's fight.

That purpose has resulted in Tina's now-regular slate of appearances and invites to sing elsewhere, including Kean University and Morris View Healthcare Center in Morristown (where the residents ask for Frank Sinatra standards).

"Where other people would shut down, that's when Tina comes alive, so she loves that opportunity," Mercedes said. "And just watching the faces of others makes it all worth it."

Patrick Lavery produces "New Jersey's First News" and is New Jersey 101.5's morning drive breaking news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email

New Jersey 101.5's Patrick Lavery and high school classmate Tina Witowsky, pictured after one of Tina's performances in 2013 (Photo courtesy of Mercedes Witowsky)

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