ELIZABETH, NJ - More than seventy local youth learned about the challenges and rewards of independence at the annual Independent City training event held at Community Access Unlimited (CAU) in Elizabeth on July 21.

Independent City is a mock-community set up in CAU's auditorium consisting of simulated banks, apartment buildings, grocery stores, utilities and institutions and amenities that allow participating youth to make – or break – their futures.

They are given a portfolio that tells them what job they have, how much money they make and whether they have a family. Participants are then given a check and tasked with making their own life decisions as they navigate the mock community landscape.

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"This event gives them the opportunity to experience a day in the life of an adult," said Howard F. Wingard, supported housing coordinator at CAU. "They learn about all the things an adult has to do to live independently, such as budgeting their money so they don't run out. And they enjoy the feeling of accomplishment if they are successful."

Chantee Royam, 18, of Elizabeth, is a member of CAU's Transitional Opportunities Program (TOP) who attended the event and found it very rewarding.

"I learned that people will have difficulties in life because they don’t budget or behave responsibly with their money," she said. "You need to work to earn money and plan properly so you can have a balanced life."

While some youth ran out of money in the exercise, Royam successfully managed her funds.

"I looked at what’s most important in terms of bills and the things I wanted to buy for fun and if I didn’t have the money, I didn’t buy things I didn’t need," she said.

TOP member and Elizabeth resident Jacob Gawlikowski, 18, was assigned a persona of someone who had been convicted of a crime.

"Having a criminal record is hard," he said. "I never get in trouble but the character I was given did, and I couldn’t get a house. I was basically homeless even though I had a budget. I didn’t have utilities to pay for (so) I bought a car, which I was living out of with my (hypothetical) child, and that is about all I spent my money on."

Gawlikowski said he enjoyed the day.

"The best part of my day was learning and talking to people about being an adult and preparing for adulthood," he said. "I think I’m pretty prepared to be an adult but because of certain things I have no control over, I’m kind of limited. For instance, (in my real life) my birth certificate was lost, so I can’t get a bank account. Sometimes you’re held back because of other people’s decisions and there isn’t much you can do about it."

Also participating in the exercise were representatives from Santander Bank, Rutgers University, a local high school and law enforcement.

"The kids did pretty well learning what the real world is like and how being independent can be challenging but rewarding," Wingard said. "They took a lot out of it."

Community Access Unlimited is a statewide nonprofit providing support programs and services to individuals with disabilities as well as youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF), provides assistance in housing, life-skills training, vocational skills, money management, health maintenance, education, advocacy, and recreation.

CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil rights. For more information about CAU and its services, contact them by phone at 908.354.3040, online at www.caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.

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