ELIZABETH, NJ - This week, Harold Harris chose an engagement ring and picked up a red dress shirt for a celebration on Valentine’s Day. He said he can’t wait to officially propose to his girlfriend, Jennifer Brown.
Both Harris and Brown are members at Community Access Unlimited (CAU), a Union County-based, statewide nonprofit that strives to integrate people with disabilities and at-risk youth into the general community through comprehensive supports.
The two have been a couple since the CAU Prom in 2019. Jennifer agreed to go to the dance with Harold after talking to him on the phone every day, she said.
“He called me every day- he has respect and he dresses nicely,” she said of falling for Harris. “We get along well.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a test for relationships over the last year, forcing couples to endure separation, stress and problem-solving under difficult circumstances. Couples with disabilities in New Jersey have faced additional challenges due to state-mandated visitation restrictions at residential programs and other closures affecting their regular schedules.
Jennifer and Harold and another CAU couple, George Cluen and Donna Larsen, revealed that their love has strengthened over the past year as they turned to each other for support.
“The only issue is that we can’t really see each other since this pandemic started...it’s hard to see each other and have social distancing,” Brown said. “The last time we saw each other was Christmas.”
Though they were apart during much of 2020, Brown and Harris realized that they were ready to take the next step in their relationship. The couple started planning last Labor Day to get married in 2021, and have set a date that can’t come soon enough, July 31.
“I’m looking toward the date,” Harris said. “We love each other very much.”
George Cluen and Donna Larsen have been together for 35 years and also met through CAU as members in residential programs.
“We met at a friend’s house,” Cluen said. “We started talking, and I let her talk and just listened. She said, ‘I can tell you anything.’”
Larsen said she was first drawn to Cluen’s blue eyes, and said that one thing she loves about him is that he appreciates her cooking. Both said some of their favorite memories together have been made at CAU Couples Night because they enjoy socializing with other couples.
“We don’t really fight or argue or have disagreements, so that’s a good thing,” Larsen said.
Like Harris and Brown, Cluen and Larsen have had few visits with each other during the pandemic because they live at different residential programs.
“I’m hoping we can see each other on Valentine’s Day,” Cluen said. I would like to take her out to dinner and I usually buy her flowers.”
Until it is considered safe for the couple to see each other more often, Cluen and Larsen said they would continue to talk on the phone every day. They are looking forward to an end to the pandemic and possibly moving in together.
“I love her with all my heart,” Cluen said.