UNION, NJ - More than 200 youth living within the child welfare system from throughout New Jersey heard that PRIDE – preparation, resiliency, intelligence, discipline and exercise – can help them achieve their goals in life. That was the message from the keynote speaker at the 2016 Annual Youth Conference hosted by Community Access Unlimited (CAU) at Kean University this week. Also attending were more than 35 adults representing more than 20 different agencies.

CAU is a statewide Elizabeth-based nonprofit providing support programs and services to adults with disabilities as well as youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to enable them to live independently in the community, providing supports in areas including housing, vocational skills and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation.

Former Sgt. 1st Class Morrease Leftwich of the U.S. Army served as the keynote speaker. Leftwich was born to a single, 17-year-old mother who abandoned him and his 6-month-old sister when he was 8. Leftwich carried groceries for spare change to care for himself and his baby sister until being rescued by his grandparents.

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Later, rather than allow his grandparents to go into debt to pay for his college education, Leftwich enlisted in the Army and for more than 21 years served in the United States, Asia, Europe and for two years in Iraq.

Leftwich said he developed the acronym PRIDE when he was younger to help him stay focused and achieve his goals in life. Regarding preparation, he said, "For anything in life, you have to prepare. And you can't prepare until you know what you want to do."

Resiliency is important "because everything in life doesn't always go according to plan. Resiliency is the ability to bounce back. I wasn't planning on being abandoned."

For intelligence, Leftwich said, "You have to know what you need to get where you're going. You need to know what you don't know and continue to learn."

"Discipline is all about yourself," he added. "You are at the age now where you can't wait for other people to tell you what to do."

Finally, exercise is important to live a long life, he said.

"If you take pride and use this in your life, you're going to go farther," he said.

Brianna Hooper and Sadiah Taylor are two newer CAU members who attended the conference for the first time. Both came away impressed with Leftwich's message.

"The way he broke it down for me," said Taylor, who was living with her sister before joining CAU. "I never realized I had to go through these different steps to get where I want to go."

"You never really think of it that way," said Hooper, who was homeless before becoming a member of CAU. "It's different."

Both Hooper and Taylor are happy they came to CAU.

"Coming from a background of not having a family, you get that family environment," Hooper said. "It makes you feel appreciated."

"I get a lot of resources," Taylor said. "If I need help with my education or work, there's always someone to help me."

Sergio Granados, vice chair of the Union County Freeholders, also spoke at the conference, which also featured afternoon workshops on finding the king in oneself, calmness and health, the danger of gangs, teamwork, bullying and an LGBTQ safe zone.

About Community Access Unlimited

Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 37th year in 2016, 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.