Youth living within New Jersey's child welfare system may have experienced a hard past but today have the ability to define their future based on both their own choices and the resources the system makes available to them. That was the message delivered to more than 200 youth at the 2015 Annual Youth Conference held last week at L'Affaire Fine Catering in Mountainside.

The conference, sponsored by Community Access Unlimited (CAU), drew more than 150 youth from throughout the state's child welfare system as well as adults working to support them. CAU is 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.

Balign Johnson is a mentor, football coach and former correction officer and social worker who served as the keynote speaker. Johnson grew up in Cleveland, where his mother had two children by 17, was divorced by 21 and homeless with her children at 25. He told the audience he was surrounded by crime, drugs and prostitution and that the men of his neighborhood were and women of his neighborhood were not the sort of person he could see as a role model.

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"How do you overcome that?" he asked. "I realized I had a choice to make. In order to be successful you have define your purpose and then move on. Some of you are living in the system and asking, 'Why me?'  Define yourself. The programs you are in are your resources. With the proper use of your resources you can be successful."

Omar Anthony Carter, a former member of CAU, also spoke to the audience. He grew up in the Brick City section of Newark, was in foster care at 14 and experienced abuse, he told the audience. Today he works in security for global pharmaceutical company Allergan, is a singer, songwriter, dancer and actor and attends Kaplan University.

"Coming to CAU was the best decision I ever made in my life," he said. "They gave me the ability to be who I am. You can choose to be different. I'm from Brick City. I already was a statistic. Why not turn that statistic around?"

In addition to hearing the speakers, the youths in attendance participated in a number of workshops on subjects including how to be a responsible adult; harassment, intimidation and bullying; safe sex and sexual exploitation; maximizing the benefits of interaction with their staffs within their programs; and aging out of the system. The theme of the conference was "Youth Rise. Despite Adversities."

"The purpose of the conference is for youth from throughout the state to learn how to maximize the benefits they can get from the supports being offered them," said Tana Owens, director of residential services at CAU.

"They also meet other youth they may have lost contact with as they moved through the system and discuss topics going on within their lives. We hope each of the youths takes something positive from the day which they can use in their lives and share with others."   

Jonathan Kindle, a member of CAU since 2012 who lives in a CAU property within the agency's Transitional Opportunities Program, attended the conference.

"I felt like everyone interacted and was part of something that can change their lives and allow them to express how they feel," he said. "The speakers motivated me to be myself, to be different and express how I feel about situations."

Dominique Black, a CAU member since 2014 also living in a CAU property within TOP, felt the conference's was very beneficial.

"It's very good for the youth," she said. "It's fun to meet new people and learn new things. We should have it twice a year."

Sid Blanchard, executive director of CAU, said, "In order to meet the needs of youth we have to hear from them what their needs are. That's part of our philosophy or working with young people and people with disabilities at CAU. You can't put together proper supports without their input. It's what we call, 'Nothing about them without them.'"

About CAU

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.