ELIZABETH, NJ - For most young adults, prom night means dressing in gowns and tuxedos, climbing into limousines and celebrating a rite of passage. Yet many youths with disabilities, often outside the mainstream education environment or simply not invited, never get to experience that joy and excitement.

Yet members of Community Access Unlimited (CAU) are able to enjoy prom night every year, enjoying the delights of getting dressed up, dancing to music and interacting with friends – again and again. The agency began holding Prom Night several years ago to enable all its members with disabilities to experience something many of them missed in their youth.

CAU is a statewide nonprofit providing support programs and services to more than 6,000 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, in areas including vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation and in-home services.

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This year's Prom Night was held at the Peterstown Community Center in Elizabeth and more than 100 members of CAU attended.

"It's a night of fun, something to look forward to throughout the year," said Rolando Zorrilla, assistant executive director of disability services at CAU. "What's also special is you don't need a date to come. Everyone is welcome. Just come and enjoy the music, the food and the camaraderie."

CAU's Prom Night is the brainchild of the agency's Helping Hands self-advocacy group. The group hosts the evening, planning everything from color theme to choice of music. Gary Rubin was president of Helping Hands when Prom Night was started.

"A lot of people with disabilities went to school in special ed and didn't have the chance to attend prom," he said. "It's a chance to relive their youth, what they missed out on in their earlier life."

"We also have a lot of members who came to us from institutions who never had this before," added Annie Simms,  the current president of Helping Hands. "Helping Hands is meant to bring people together to socialize and self-advocate. We want people to speak for themselves and feel good about themselves."

Mark Bloom and Marcella Truppa, who have attended every Prom Night since its inception, were feeling very good even though the long-time couple would not be dancing due to an ankle injury to Truppa.

"I like that the members come together and have a good time," she said. "I like to dance, just not tonight."

Bloom attended prom in high school but much prefers the CAU version. "I didn't like it. I went by myself," he said. "Here I know everyone and I enjoy myself."

Mary Kurnos attended Prom Night alone but was enjoying the evening nonetheless.

"I come every year," she said. "I used to come with my husband until he passed. But I still come. I know people here and have a good time."

While Prom Night is special in that it represents an evening when agency members can relive a moment they might have missed in their youth, it is very typical of the recreation opportunities CAU provides its members, according to Zorrilla. The agency also hosts an annual Couples Night, a gala, awards nights and regular outings to shows, restaurants and destinations such as Atlantic City that enable its members to spend a great deal of time socializing and interacting with the community, one of the agency's missions, he said.

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.