With caps and gowns, the stirring sounds of Pomp and Circumstance and parents’ cell phones recording every step, ECLC of New Jersey graduated 23 students with special needs from its Chatham and Ho-Ho-Kus schools last week.

The grads received high school diplomas conferred by their hometown districts. And, in a moving ECLC tradition, they were all afforded an opportunity to speak, with some using augmentative speech devices to communicate.

Few ECLC graduates continue to higher education, but this year one Chatham school graduate, Brian Curci of Cranford, will enroll at East Stroudsberg University’s “Career, Independent Living & Learning Studies program.” The program provides individuals with intellectual disabilities a learning experience in a campus environment, where life and work skills are accelerated by daily encouragement in the life of a university.

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The program includes living off campus and acquiring proficiency to function among others without disabilities on campus. In addition, the program offers personal development activities combined with classes designed to develop essential skills for independent living and future employment.

During graduation, one graduate summed up the bittersweet feelings of all saying, “I have mixed emotions about graduating tonight. I am happy, excited but also a little nervous,” said Emily Boehmer of South Orange.

Many graduates paid tribute to their families. Joshua Moreines of Cranford started his speech by saying, “First, I would thank my family for sending me to ECLC.” Joao Simoes of Caldwell drew a few laughs when he quipped, “Dad, you are my best friend. I love that you are goofy.” Andrew Costanza of Nutley said, “I am truly thankful for the support you have given me, mom and dad. You give me emotional support, if I am worried about something, and you always encourage me.”

ECLC stands for “Education, Careers & Lifelong Community” and serves more than 800 children and adults from 11 counties who have special needs, including autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities. The nonprofit’s two private schools educate nearly 300 students.

All students graduate with a clear plan for their future. ECLC offers two paths: employment services through an affiliate, Community Personnel Services (CPS) and a day program called P.R.I.D.E. Some students combine these options, by working part-time and attending P.R.I.D.E. on a part-time basis.

The CPS employment specialists help graduates find jobs in or near their hometowns and provide ongoing support and advocacy in the workplace. This year several graduates will begin new jobs in retail and food service.

The P.R.I.D.E. Adult Program, with centers in Florham Park and Paramus, is exclusively for ECLC’s graduates. Adults in P.R.I.D.E. spend meaningful days continuing to learn and grow. They choose their schedules, from a wide range of options, including fitness, computers, book club, food shopping and cooking, yoga, fine arts and more. They also venture out into the community each day for volunteering, field trips and other activities. Nearly 200 adults are enrolled in P.R.I.D.E.

Whether they are off to college or a new job or excited about continuing with classmates at the P.R.I.D.E. program, ECLC students are prepared to march into the future! Learn more about ECLC of New Jersey.