Robert Chaj Ordonez received the only gift he wanted for Christmas last week – his U.S. citizenship. The 25-year-old Elizabeth resident took his naturalization oath of allegiance to the United States at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Newark Dec. 18, one week before Christmas. He was one of 108 immigrants from 44 countries taking the oath.
Ordonez's road to citizenship was long and difficult at times. He came to the United States from Guatemala at the age of 13, alone.
"I didn't know about the United States," he said. "I was a kid. My grandfather told me he'd let me go and I'd go to school and learn."
It did not work out that way initially. Homeless, Ordonez fell under the protection of child services in Arizona and was sent to Boston to live in foster care. He was very unhappy and ran away, making his way to New Jersey where he was taken into care by the Department of Children and Families, then the Department of Youth and Family Services.
At age 17 Ordonez was shifted to Community Access Unlimited (CAU), 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, in areas including housing, vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation.
As a member of CAU's Transitional Opportunities Program, which provides housing and life skills training to youth ages 13 to 21 and beyond, Ordonez first lived in CAU's Semi-Independent Housing Program before moving into the agency's Permanent Supported Housing Program.
He credits much of his progress to his membership in CAU.
"They've done a lot of great things for me, which I needed," he said. "I take full advantage of what they offer. That's what the program's about. I work hard every day."
Ordonez graduated Elizabeth High School and then earned his commercial driver's license at Smith & Solomon trucking school. He works full-time driving for American Freight, a furniture distribution company.
"Roberto is a shining example of a young immigrant coming to the United States and working to better himself while contributing to society," said Howard Wingard, coordinator of supportive housing at CAU. "He's always worked and he's now an American citizen. We're very proud of him."
"I never gave up," Ordonez said. "They gave me a book and I learned about American history and government. I've been waiting so long. I'm excited for myself. My next step is to get my own truck and become my own business. I'm so proud."
Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 36th year of success in 2015, 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 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.