LINDEN, NJ - Christine Bongovi frequently shopped at Sam's Club in Linden and loved the store so much she applied for a job. After a successful interview, she was hired and now works stocking shelves and helping members find goods.

Bongovi is a person with cognitive disabilities, one of many people with disabilities that Sam's Club employs nationwide. October is Disability Employment Awareness Month and Bongovi and the more than 70 other members of Community Access Unlimited (CAU) are examples of how employing people with disabilities benefits both employees and employers alike.

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.

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Bongovi has held many jobs but enjoys her employment at Sam's Club the most.

"Sam's Club has the nicest people," Bongovi said. "They don't treat you differently than anyone else. They do whatever they can for you."

Bongovi is one of three CAU members employed by Sam's Club in Linden. She is joined by Annie Johnson, who works cleaning the club and collecting carts, and Paula Fair, who is a cashier.

"I like working," said Johnson. "It keeps me busy and focused."

Added Fair, "I enjoy helping people. I like to make the members smile."

"All three are very good employees," said Dewight Braithwaite, member services assistant manager at the Sam's Club. "Christine is always getting compliments from members. Paula always comes in with a positive attitude ready to work and Annie is always willing to get feedback on how she can do her job better.

"Sam's Club prides itself on being a very diverse and inclusive place to work," Braithwaite continued. "We make sure we treat all our associates the same. The more diverse workforce we have the more we can help our members. All our associates have different perspectives and that helps us be a better retailer."

According to Employment & Training Resources, a One-Stop resource, employing people with disabilities makes good business sense because it has a direct impact on a business' bottom line. Retention rates among people with disabilities are higher than average, thus reducing training costs. And people with disabilities are loyal customers to businesses who support them. The center reports that companies earn an average return of $28.69 for every dollar invested in making an accommodation to employ a person with disabilities.

A study by DePaul University, “Exploring the Bottom Line: A Study of the Costs and Benefits of Workers with Disabilities,” reinforces these findings. The study found that employees with disabilities stayed on the job longer than participants without disabilities; had fewer scheduled and unscheduled absences; had nearly identical job performance ratings; and required only minimal additional supervision.

In addition, businesses hiring people with disabilities can qualify for tax credits of up to $9,600 and state and federal grants, according to Onekia Grier, director of employment services at CAU.

CAU offers a multitude of various vocational and career planning services tailored to each individual, in coordination with both the state Division of Developmental Disabilities and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Grier said. Services include working with job coaches to help members prepare for and secure employment. 

Specifically, CAU provides people with disabilities pre-vocational training, including interviewing skills, effective communication and appropriate work attire training; long-term follow-along supports that work toward retention; on-site job analysis and job coaching; job carving; career planning; vocational assessments; travel training; job development; time management; workplace do’s and don’ts; individual or small group employment opportunities; and a self-directed day program that serves individuals who are in need of one on one support.

For employers, CAU offers free work-site assessments, job maintenance training, on-site job coaching, assistance in making a business accessible and long-term follow up.

"We make sure the training and employment is in an area the individual wants," Grier said. "We make sure it's both something they're interested in and attainable. Our work benefits employers, as well. They know they are hiring responsible employees who are trained and eager to work."

In addition to Sam's Club, local businesses employing CAU members who have benefited from the agency's employment training services include the Humane Society of Newark, Target, ShopRite, Marshalls, Walmart, Swan Motel, White Castle, Retro Fitness, Dollar Tree, the Irvington Board of Education, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey and Galloping Hill Golf Course.

In addition, 8 percent of CAU's more than 1,100 employees are people with disabilities.

"Inclusion is at the very heart of CAU," Grier said. "We believe in it. This is what sets us apart from any other Supported Employment organization."

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.