After Yawina Cirene left a bad situation at home she was living with her brother's friend before being referred to Community Access Unlimited in 2011. Today she lives in a CAU residential property and is a sophomore at Rider University majoring in business administration with an eye toward entering supply chain management.

This past Wednesday Cirene and 25 other youths in CAU's Transitional Opportunities Program (TOP) marked one or more years in the program at an annual event held to celebrate their success. TOP provides a variety of residential services to at-risk youth aged 13-21. Members receive independent living and transitional living services and life skills training until they are able to live independently. TOP counselors guide members while also holding them accountable to work toward certain ongoing goals.

"It's difficult for some of the kids in the child welfare system to stay in a program, so we celebrate them maintaining placement a year or more," said Tana Owens, director of residential services at CAU. "Sometimes because of the challenges in their life, they have difficulty maintaining placement for one year. At CAU, we understand."

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Owens said that understanding includes listening to the youths, visiting their schools, helping them find work and continually checking on them to make sure they are okay.

That support is appreciated.

Jesse Potter marked his first full year in the program at the celebration. He also lives in CAU housing because "it didn’t work out at home so I had to leave," he said. He attends the Thomas Edison Technical and Career Academy in Elizabeth and wants to become a teacher working with children with behavioral disabilities. Potter greatly enjoys being a member of CAU and the TOP program.

"I like experiencing all the cultural things I never experienced before," he said. "It's given me the opportunities to shape my life and learn new skills."

Johnathan Kindle marked his third full year in TOP. Like Cirene and Potter, he lives in CAU housing while attending Union County College, studying to become an information technology technician.

"CAU gives me shelter," he said. "They had me go out and look for a job. They help me with my budgeting and planning my weekly schedule. The staff is here to help you and members are here to support each other. We're a family and we all have problems but we manage it."

Owens noted that in addition to residing in CAU housing, Cirene, Potter and Kindle all participated the agency's Summer Youth Employment Program and then found jobs, participate in community volunteering and are leaders within TOP and CAU's Member Action Committee.

"If I didn't find CAU when I did, I don't know where I'd be right now," Cirene said. "When I didn't have a job they pushed me. They help me focus on school. They're always making sure I'm doing what I need to do. They help me with the skills I need to survive. I feel confident when I leave CAU I will survive in the world."

CAU provides support programs and services to people with disabilities statewide and youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to enable them to live independently at home or in the community, in areas including housing, vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation and in-home services.

About CAU

Community Access Unlimited (CAU), marking its 36th anniversary 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 had 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 6,000 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.