ELIZABETH, NJ -

Sixteen local at-risk youth this week celebrated finding stability and security as they marked their first full year as members of the Transitional Opportunities Program of Community Access Unlimited (CAU).

The Transitional Opportunities Program (TOP) provides housing, life skills training and other support services to youth aged 13-21 being served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Members participate in employment training; education, including a GED program; drug and alcohol awareness training; and advocacy training.

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Upon entering TOP, members meet with CAU staff and together they create a personalized plan that includes goals they must work toward and incentives and reward for achieving those goals. Failure to work toward goals results in removal from the program. Each year TOP staff hold a celebration honoring those members who have successfully completed one full year.

Dashaan Jennings is an education specialist within TOP and works closely with members as they progress through the program.

"When members come into the program they receive an individual support plan that includes goals they have to work toward," he said. "Along with those goals we have daily expectations for them. We expect them to become independent and self-sufficient. Staff works with them to achieve these goals."

The youth are referred to TOP through either the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency or the Division of Children's System of Care and come from varying backgrounds, according to Jennings.

"Some have been in the system since they were babies," he said. "Some had issues at home or their parents can't care for them. Some come from juvenile delinquency. That is why we personalize the plans."

Shameese Burnet, 20, was homeless before she came to TOP and today feels secure and driven.

"The opportunities they offer you here are great," she said. "It's improved me a lot. They taught me structure, life skills, how to prepare for my future. When I first got here I had nothing. I didn't think they'd help me but they did. They support you in every way."

Jonathan Louis, 20, was having problems living at home before he became a TOP member.

"They gave me a home, shelter and food," he said. "They help me manage my money. They help me build on my character. They show me who I am, how to be a leader, not a follower, not to let others define me."

Carlito Lopez was living in a group home before coming to TOP.

"It wasn't what I expected when I came here," he said. "I learned things, like how much rent is in the real world and how much it costs to live."

Community Access Unlimited (CAU) is a statewide 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. CAU serves more than 8,000 members statewide.

About CAU

Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 38th year in 2017, 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 serves more than 8,000 individuals 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.