Community Access Unlimited (CAU) last night celebrated the achievements of a number of at-risk youth who are members of the agency's Transitional Opportunities Program (TOP). Each of these youth are within New Jersey's child services system and faced a number of life challenges before coming to CAU and TOP and since then have made significant progress in plotting a brighter future with the help of the agency and its counselors.

CAU is a statewide Union County-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.

TOP provides housing for at-risk youth aged 13-21 and life-skills training necessary to enable these young people to live independently in the community when they age out of the child services system. TOP members coordinate with counselors to define goals they work to achieve as they move toward adulthood.

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Each year CAU hosts Youth Achievement Night to celebrate those TOP members who have made significant progress in their goal plans. This year the agency and TOP members recognized 15 members with individual awards ranging from budgeting and employment to most likely to achieve, as well as 12 recent high school graduates and 18 members who are employed.

Gimini Ricks, 19, was honored with the Salutatorian Award. She graduated West High School in Newark with a 3.2 grade point average and is slated to attend Kean University in the fall, where she will major in psychology, childcare and business with an eye toward opening her own child counseling firm.

"I really enjoy being a member of CAU," she said. "I've learned a lot. I've gained a lot of access, such as to applying to college."

Tyshaun Williams-Jones, 19, received the Apprentice Award for employment. He works on the maintenance crew at CAU, which has enabled him to work on time management and hone his work ethic over the past year.

"Being a member of CAU has helped me by having to be on time for work and being more focused," he said, adding that the agency has provided him with direction and purpose. Williams-Jones intends to go to school to learn to design clothes.

Eric Blackman-Hayes, coordinator of the Union County Youth Shelter, which is operated by CAU, served as the master of ceremony and spoke to the youth about planning for their future.

"Going forward you have to plan your path," he said. "Think about how you're going to make money and what kind of career you're going to pursue. Start to take your future seriously and have a vision for yourself moving forward."

"The purpose of this celebration is to acknowledge all the members' activities from last year to this year, including special achievements and overcoming adversity," said Tana Owens, director of residential services at CAU. "Our goal in the program is to provide support to help them develop the skills to live independently and to establish long-term relationships for after they've left the program."

About Community Access Unlimited

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 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.