It is incumbent upon young people to deliver their own future, even when faced with the challenges of living within the child services system. That was the message heard by more than 160 youth served under the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) at the 2014 Annual Youth Conference held this week at L'Affaire Fine Catering in Mountainside. The conference was sponsored by Community Access Unlimited (CAU), which serves people with disabilities and at-risk youth.
Sgt. 1st Class Morrease Leftwich of the U.S. Army helped deliver that message as the conference's keynote speaker. Leftwich was born to a single, 17-year-old mother who abandoned him and his six-month-old sister when he was eight. Even at that young age, Leftwich began delivering his own future by carrying groceries for spare change to care for himself and his baby sister until being rescued by his grandparents.
In high school Leftwich continued delivering, serving on the student council and as captain of both the football and track teams. While he briefly attended Rutgers University, his refusal to allow his grandparents to go into debt to pay for his education led him to enlisting in the Army. For the last 19 years he has served in the United States, Asia, Europe and for two years in Iraq while excelling at every rank.
In addressing the youth Leftwich compared life to the postal system.
"All the adults are the postal masters," he said. "The youth are the mail carriers and their packages are their futures. Whatever comes their way – be it rain or snow or sleet – they have to promise to deliver because the world needs their story."
He also told them they must be like steel.
"Steel is made through the hottest of fire. Will you burn, will you melt or will you cut through life's obstacles," he asked.
The conference was attended by more than 160 youth and 50 adults serving youth from a variety of programs throughout the state.
In addition to hearing Leftwich and other speakers, attendees participated in a variety of workshops, including: Guy Code, providing young males with skills such as health tips, resume writing and interviewing, grooming and respecting women; Girl Code, which addressed appropriate attire, applying make-up and bargain shopping; Substance Abuse, which taught the dangers of drugs; H.I.V. to teach youth how to prevent HIV and encourage safe sex; Motivating Staff, which supported social services agency staff through team-building exercises to lift morale and identify tools for motivating youth; and Aging Out to inform youth who are aging out of the system of the many resources available to them.
"The purpose of the Youth Conference is to have all the youth of different agencies come together and learn there is more for them than what they have been through," said Julia Leftwich, CAU’s director of youth shelter services. Through our theme this year of 'Youth Deliver the Future' we wanted them to know the decisions they make affect the future and their own future."
Kenneth Archie is a 22-year-old who has been a member of CAU since he entered the agency's group home at age 13. He found the conference very effective and helpful.
"It's an excellent resource for the youth to not only get insight into useful information but also hear from people who have been in similar situations as we have," he said.
Archie delivered his own future form the moment he became a member of CAU. Today he serves as an officer of the agency's Member Action Committee and often speaks at national conferences about living within the system. He currently lives within CAU's Supportive Housing program but will be venturing off on his own in October, nearly 10 years after coming to the agency.
"I've grown a lot," he said.
CAU is an 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.
Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 35th anniversary, 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.