The lights were low and the music loud, colored balloons floated in the air and people dressed to the nines filled the dance floor Friday evening at a very special prom. These prom-goers were not high school teenagers, rather, they were people with disabilities of all ages.

In place of high school students, those well-dressed people were adult members of Community Access Unlimited (CAU), 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). Each year, CAU hosts a prom for adults with disabilities, many of which were once excluded from celebrated teenage traditions like school dances.

"Several years ago our self-advocates decided they wanted to have their own prom because they didn't go to prom in school," said Charlene Walker, an advocacy coordinator at CAU. "Those who went to mainstream schools weren't invited. Those who went to alternative schools didn't have a prom. So this is an opportunity for our members to attend a prom with their peers and not be judged."

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The CAU prom is sponsored by Helping Hands, the agency's member-driven self-advocacy group.

"Prom gives people a chance to socialize, catch up and really have a good time," said Belinda Malave, a vice president of Helping Hands. "A lot of our members are really shy so we try to get their personalities out. Most of them weren't able to go to prom when they were young, either for social reasons or because their parents were overly protective. This gives them a chance to shine."

Sharon Mohry and Buddy Bardem, who attend prom each summer and have been a couple for 16 years, said they enjoy the dancing and the music.

"The prom gives our members a chance to get out," Mohry said.

Longtime CAU member Gary Rubin sat at the welcoming table with a beaming smile as he watched his fellow members enjoy the festivities. Rubin, a co-founder of Helping Hands, launched prom along with former member Sid Katz eight years ago.

"People with disabilities aren't welcome at prom in high school," he said. "This allows our members to feel welcome and not be excluded."

Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 39th year in 2018, 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 little power in society, assisting its members with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization and civic activities. Serving more than 5,000 individuals and families, CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil rights. 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.