ELIZABETH – As members of Community Access Unlimited (CAU) gather for Thanksgiving with family and friends this year they will celebrate not only their blessings but also their achievements and ability to give back to the communities they embrace and which embrace them.
“People with disabilities and young people who have experienced living within the foster care system often are misperceived to have less to be thankful for than others who face less challenges, but the opposite it true,” said Sid Blanchard, CAU executive director. “Perhaps more than most people our members are thankful every day for the opportunities they have to improve their lives.”
For CAU members with disabilities this includes the opportunity to live independently within the community; receive training in life skills and vocation; work and be consumers; and enjoy community involvement, according to Blanchard. For at-risk youth, it comprises the chance to reverse life trends that often go hand-in-hand with the incongruence of foster care and instead find stability that brings progression toward independent living and productive futures.
John Hargrove, a person with disabilities, owns his own home and is thankful to CAU for the opportunity to have realized that dream. After deciding he no longer wanted to rent, Hargrove took classes at CAU to learn about setting goals, saving money and credit-worthiness.
“I had to take classes to learn how it was going to be done so I could figure it out,” he said.
Famitta Durham came to CAU from the foster care system full of anger and void of trust, by her own admission.
“When I first came, nobody could tell me anything,” she said. “No one’s opinion mattered. Then I realized people were trying to help me be a better person. Now I’m more mature. I’ve become independent. I believe in myself more than before I came here.”
For many CAU members this appreciation quickly translates into a desire to give back, according to Blanchard. They are thankful for the opportunities they have earned and in turn want to help others, he said.
“Our members become integrated members of the community,” Blanchard said. “They live and work throughout Union County. They pay taxes, vote and shop. Their employers welcome them as valuable employees and the towns in which they live embrace them. So naturally, they want to give back.”
CAU members give back in many ways, some collectively and others as individuals.
Earlier this year CAU members donated $1,000 to a Roselle family who lost several relatives in the earthquake that devastated Haiti, with the money going to help members of the family on the island. CAU’s self-advocacy group, Helping Hands, made the donation to fellow-member David Dimanche, a 16-year-old whose family is of Haitian descent.
CAU’s younger members collectively give back to the community through the agency’s Youth Advisory Board, which advocates for youth throughout the state on a variety of issues and also supports soup kitchens, runs food and toy drives and promotes voter activism.
Randy Marcado, a person with disabilities, feels a sense of obligation to the community in which he lives. He is active in local advocacy and attends monthly town council meetings in his borough. He has gotten to know his councilwoman, whom he plans to invite to CAU recreation and advocacy meetings.
“I’m independent but I like being with other people,” he said.
Dennis Foster, a CAU youth member, recently spent time as a volunteer at an animal hospital and felt reconnected to the community.
“It made me feel needed,” he said. “Even if I’m not getting paid, people can count on me and I try my best not to disappoint them.”
Foster hopes to give back to the community in even greater ways in the future. He wants to become a veterinarian yet his aspirations do not stop with animals. They include helping others in the community in part through his favorite animal – rattle snakes.
“Their venom can cure cancer,” he said. “I find myself leaning toward that profession and field.”
“When I look at how much our members have accomplished and how much they give back to the community, I recognize that not only do they have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, but so do the rest of us in the community,” he said. “We should be thankful for them.”
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