ELIZABETH, NJ - Two members of Community Access Unlimited with developmental disabilities are shining this month as they and the agency celebrate National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Both are prime examples of this year's theme for the month, "See Me For Me."
National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month was created in 1987 to “increase public awareness of the needs and potential of Americans with developmental disabilities." Since then the focus of the month has shifted to the importance of inclusion and living life side by side, which rests at the core of CAU's mission.
Sunnah Bilal Shakir, 27, for a long time was very disinterested and disengaged. However, working with CAU staff, Shakir recently has blossomed, becoming more interactive, according to Jennifer Lebowitz, a CAU behaviorist.
She attends CAU's Academy for Continuing Education, taking classes in theater, card-making, and jewelry. She recently sang in a Cabaret performance staged by the agency and is cast as Miss Mary in CAU's annual musical that allows actors with and without disabilities to perform side by side. In addition, Shakir is very active in her church, attending mass several times a week and singing in the choir.
"She's actively participating in the community and doing things that make her feel good about herself," Lebowitz said. "She's finding out who she is."
"I love being a member of Community Access," Shakir said. "Singing makes me feel happy. I also like to learn."
April Verducci, 25, came to CAU after living in a psychiatric facility. When CAU behaviorist Yolanda Atkinson began working with her she was non-verbal and disinterested. Now she is speaking, taking care of herself and interacting with her roommates, according to Atkinson.
"It's amazing to see her now, how verbal and interactive she is," Atkinson said. "She's added sight words and her vocabulary skills have greatly expanded."
"I like being a member of Community Access," Verducci said. "If I have a problem, I call my staff. I like to come to music class.
"Tomorrow is karaoke," she added with a big smile.
"At Community Access Unlimited we are committed to enabling our members to meet their fullest potential, live a fulfilling and integrated life within the community and be recognized and appreciated for who they are as people, rather than labeled by their disability," said Tracy LeBaron, managing director of behavioral services. "Sunnah and April, and all the progress they have made with us are shining examples of that."
Community Access Unlimited (CAU) 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.
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.