UNION COUNTY, NJ - Community Access Unlimited (CAU) recently recognized the achievements of several of its members with disabilities and youth members, celebrating their accomplishments of goals and strengthening of their independence.

CAU is a statewide nonprofit providing programs and services to more than 6,000 adults with disabilities as well as youth served under the Department of Children and Families to enable them to live independently in the community  in areas including vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation and in-home services.

The agency honored 11 members with disabilities at its annual Performance Recognition Night, recognizing their achievements of goals such as gaining full employment, getting their license, starting college, moving into more independent living quarters or getting their own home, or maximizing their time in the community.

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"We're recognizing members who have made changes or achieved goals they've been working on to maximize their independence," said Sheila Stephan, director of residential services at CAU. "It's to show them their achievements haven't gone unrecognized."

Fredia McKinnie, assistant executive director of disability services, noted that setting and achieving goals can sometimes be challenging for people with disabilities. She said the steps CAU staff helps members identify and pursue include making quality decisions, determining they are willing to make sacrifices to achieve their goals, designing and following a plan and associating with those who will be supportive.

"It can be very difficult to make these decisions to move forward," she said.

Maurice Stephens was one of those receiving an award. Stephens has been a member of CAU for five years and is an artist who teaches art to fellow members. He says being a member of CAU helps him achieve his goals and live more independently.

"I've been working for a long time," he said. "I didn't think that would last but it did. I didn't think I could teach but that worked out. I didn't think I could manage money but I can. For the first time I feel normal."

Mary Kurnos also was recognized this year, a repeat honor for her. She has been a member of CAU for 28 years and has been employed by the agency for 22 years. This year she achieved her goal of improving the way she talks to people, being more respectful.

"I love being a member of CAU," she said. "I'm proud to be a member. I'm important as a member. I feel supported."

CAU also recently recognized 19 of its youth members for achievements ranging from academics and budgeting to recreation and most improved, as well as nine additional members who graduated high school and 17 who are employed. They were honored at the agency's annual Youth Achievement Night.

"The purpose is to acknowledge all their activities from last year to this year, including special achievements and overcoming adversity," said Tanya Johnson, senior assistant executive director of youth services at CAU. "Our goal in the program is to provide support to help them develop the skills to live independently and to establish long-term relationships for after they've left the program."

Shameese Burnett received the Best Foot Forward Award. She was described as one of the hardest workers in CAU's youth program who welcomed the opportunity this year to learn from CAU staff and her teachers at school. She recently graduated from Abraham Clark High School in Roselle and will be attending Union County College this fall with the intent of becoming a social worker.

"I want to help somebody like me," she said, noting how much CAU has helped her. "It's wonderful. If you want to help yourself, they help you," she said.

David Vargas was recognized for his academic achievement of maintaining a 3.0 grade point average in his senior year at South Plainfield High School. He will attend Union County College this fall, at first enrolling in general studies but with an eye toward business. He said CAU and the staff are very supportive of his growth and development.

"They gave me the chance to be eligible for a scholarship," he said. "They helped me apply."

CAU's youth members also selected for recognition Kesha Wiggs, a case worker at Families and Community Together, a Mountainside-based nonprofit providing assistance to Union County families who have children with emotional, behavioral, social or mental health needs.

"We go in and try to stabilize the home," she said. "Some children we have to place and we refer them to providers such as CAU. We know when we put them at CAU they're in good hands."

About CAU

Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 36th year of success in 2015, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community. CAU provides support and gives a voice to adults and youth who traditionally have little support and no voice in society.  CAU helps people with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization and civic activities. CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil rights. CAU serves more than 6,000 individuals each year. For more information about CAU and its services, contact us at 908.354.3040 or www.caunj.org, or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.