With the renewal of spring, romance flowers anew as couples holding hands stroll through warm evenings and feel their love renewed. Each spring there also is a very special celebration of love as people with disabilities who are in committed relationships come together to honor their love at the annual Couples Night celebration of Community Access Unlimited (CAU). Only this evening strolling was replaced with dinner, dancing and revelry.
CAU is a statewide nonprofit providing support programs and services to more than 6,000 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 vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation and in-home services. CAU hosted Couples Night April 17 at the Suburban Golf Club in Union.
"At CAU our mission is to enable people with disabilities to live independent and fulfilling lives within the community," said Sid Blanchard, the agency's executive director. "While that includes housing, employment and recreation, people with disabilities also often enjoy the pleasures of committed relationships – love, companionship and support. While many members of the general public and even professionals within the social services sector may not fully understand this, we at CAU encourage and celebrate it."
As music filled the evening, CAU members who are couples mingled, danced and dined. Several who have been with the agency for many years also caught up with fellow members who they do not see regularly.
Lee and Christine Bongiovi have been married 14 years, having met through a mutual friend.
"Friends were having a party for me and that's when he told me he liked me," Christine said.
The couple has one son, Justin, and they enjoy going out as a family to the mall, the movies and other activities. Yet like all married couples with children, Lee and Christine also enjoy getting out alone. Toward that end they rarely miss a CAU event such as its annual gala. That is why they enjoy Couples Night so much.
"It's a chance to get together with our significant others and a chance to go out alone," Lee said. "We dance and catch up with old friends."
Eddie Matthews and Elaine Siegel have been married 21 years. Their meeting was unusual.
"I was living with his ex-girlfriend," Elaine said. "We didn't really hit it off right away. It took some time."
More than two decades later their love has never been stronger and they enjoy attending Couples Night to celebrate it.
"It's nice," Ed said. "It's a chance for the members to go out with their boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse and get away from home. And it's nice to be with people you know.
Elaine even spreads the romance when she can. In fact, the introduced Blanchard to his wife, Liz.
Vailene and Carla Fields have been married for five years. They met on a chat line and took the step of meeting.
"I was a little nervous but excited at the same time," Carla said. "Vailene is a very kind-hearted person."
"We have a little 8-year-old daughter, Autumn, and spend a lot of time with her," said Vailene. "We have a family fun night. Carla and I spend a lot of time communicating to keep the relationship strong."
Like their fellow members, they also enjoy getting out for Couples Night.
"It's an opportunity for us to spend time together away from our routine," Vailene said. "And it's a time for me to mingle with my peers."
Added Blanchard, "This is what life is all about. To do productive work, to love and to be loved. Couples Night is about the latter two."
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.