Michelle Purri is on a roll. Earlier this month the 22-year-old received the Melissa Riggio Voices Award from the National Down Syndrome Society and the Riggio family, founders of Barnes & Noble. The award is given annually to someone with Down syndrome who the family deems best exemplifies the spirit and outlook on life of Melissa Riggio, who died in 2008.
Purri accepted the award at a luncheon in New York City where she spoke before 250 attendees, telling them, "If you dream it and believe in yourself, all things are possible."
Melissa Riggio was a poet and songwriter who was taking voice, drama and dance lessons. Like Riggio, Purri has not let having Down syndrome keep her from savoring life. She is a member of the choir at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), as well as the Best Buddies Club and Italian Club, and takes Western riding lessons. She also was featured in a book called, "Therapy Horses: Horses that Heal," copies of which she signed at the award ceremony.
The Riggio award is the latest of Purri's accomplishments. She is now in her second year attending the exclusive Career and Community Studies (CCS) program at TCNJ, a four-year college-based program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities designed to prepare them for adult life through academic rigor, career discovery and preparation and peer socialization.
Purri and her mother, Anne Marie Sima-Purri, hope to use Michelle's receiving the award to help bring attention to two issues of great concern to them, better cross-county transportation and greater opportunities for competitive employment for people with disabilities.
"The first is a barrier to the second," Sima-Purri said, who has been an avid advocate for both her daughter and people with disabilities in general.
Purri experienced that challenge first hand when she was accepted into the TCNJ program. She lives in Clinton Township in Hunterdon County, where she had always received transportation to high school and then to the Hunterdon County Polytech Career Academy. Yet when she was accepted into college she found government-sponsored transportation for people with disabilities was not available across county lines.
Then Sima-Purri found Community Access Unlimited (CAU), the Elizabeth-based nonprofit that provides support programs and services to people with disabilities statewide and youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to enable them to live independently in the community, in areas including housing, vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation. Through the agency's in-home support program, Purri is able to commute to and from TCNJ each day in transportation provided by CAU.
"By providing the transportation, which is an end to a means, they allow her to attend college at TCNJ," Sima-Purri said. "CAU is a crucial partner in Michelle's success. With Community Access providing the transportation it's been one less barrier for Michelle."
"Our mission at Community Access Unlimited is to allow our members to live independent and fulfilling lives within the community, including pursuing their passions," said Sid Blanchard, the agency's executive director. "Very few human services agencies provide the breadth of support we offer – from housing and vocation and life skills training to transportation and resource management. Michelle's passions was to be able to attend college. We were able to help make that happen."
At the Riggio award ceremony Purri signed the books in which she was featured with a simple message: "All things are possible." She is living proof.
Community Access Unlimited (CAU), marking its 35rd anniversary in 2014, 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 had 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 5,000 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.