Young people living within New Jersey's child welfare system face daunting odds – often moving from foster family to group home to support program yet never finding their place, sometimes traveling with their belongings in a plastic garbage bag.
"The analogy is not lost on them," said Tanya Johnson, senior assistant executive director, youth services, at the nonprofit Community Access Unlimited, which supports youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to enable them to live independently in the community through housing, training and education.
This week 16 at-risk youth who have found their place at CAU celebrated one year of stability and new beginning.
Youth are referred to CAU from DCF or the New Jersey Division of Children's System of Care. They are provided housing and support services, including life-skills training in areas such as money management, food shopping and housekeeping, career planning and job placement; education; leadership development; and advocacy and outreach, according to Johnson.
"Together with them and their families we design a program with goals driven by what they want to achieve and we sculpt a plan to help them," she said. "It is a very intense program. We measure their goals quarterly to ensure they are making progress toward stability."
Casandra Jeffers, 20, and Tyshaun Williams-Jones, 19, are two youth who came to CAU 12 months ago who have found just that.
"I'm so happy here," said Jeffers, who was living in an adult shelter in Newark before coming to CAU. "When you're growing up in shelters, it's good to come to a program like this. The members treat you like family. You have a beautiful apartment at low cost. You have a counselor who helps you budget your time and helps you reach your goals. There's a lot of love here."
Williams-Jones was living in a group home in New Brunswick before coming to CAU. Now he lives in an apartment with three roommates and works at CAU on the janitorial staff. Since becoming a CAU member he said he has defined short-term and long-term goals.
"I'm planning on getting a car and going to college," Williams-Jones said. "We have a group here and they bring in someone to talk about college so my long-term goal is to go to college for clothes design."
Barshay Stinson (spelling?), who has been a CAU member for three years, spoke to the group of one-year celebrants about how he has grown. Stinson has been president of CAU's Member Action Committee for three terms and has traveled throughout the Eastern United States speaking to youth services professionals advocating for other youth.
"This program definitely gave me a higher reach in life," he told them. "When I came here I didn't have friends, I had just lost family members and was lost myself. Coming here I met people and gained friends. There are a lot of things this program has done for me."
Community Access Unlimited is a statewide Union County-based nonprofit providing support programs and services to adults with disabilities as well as at-risk youth to enable them to live independently in the community, providing support in areas including housing, vocational skills, and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation.
About Community Access Unlimited
Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 39th year in 2018, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community. CAU provides support and gives 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 right. CAU currently serves more than 6,000 individuals and families, with the number served growing each year. For more information about CAU and its services, contact us by phone at 908.354.3040, online at www.caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.