ELIZABETH – Call it a return to basics, to camaraderie and romance and simple pleasures. And best of all, it comes every year.
While high school seniors enjoy a magical rite of passage when they don their tuxedos and gowns and ride stretch limousines to banquet halls for senior proms, these moments last just one evening. At Community Access Unlimited, the annual prom allows members with disabilities to return to their youth and enjoy an evening of celebration again and again.
This year’s prom, which recently was held at the Peterstown Community Center in Elizabeth, drew more than 100 members, along with agency staff. The event is a chance for members to socialize in a comfortable setting and celebrate, according to Rolando Zorrilla, assistant executive director of developmental disabilities services at CAU.
“It’s just a chance for everybody to get dressed up and relive their youth by attending a prom-style event,” Zorrilla said.
The annual event is sponsored by CAU’s Helping Hands, the agency’s self-advocacy group for members with disabilities and the oldest and strongest self advocacy groups in New Jersey. CAU provides support programs and services to people with disabilities and youth served under the Department of Children and Families to enable them to live independently in the community, in areas including housing, vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation. The annual prom for members with disabilities combines social interaction and recreation, according to Zorilla.
Zorrilla noted the prom is an evening when couples at CAU can celebrate their relationships yet unlike high school proms, where students rarely attend unless they have a date, CAU proms also are more open and embracing.
“It’s more meaningful because they come together as a group,” he said. “We believe it is important to celebrate relationships and lives our members share with their significant others. We have more than 50 couples supported by CAU who are in long-term relationships. That’s somewhat unique to CAU.
“At the same time everyone is welcome so not everyone comes as a couple. They come together as a group and put everything else aside, whether they’re working or not working or having a problem. They’re just there to have a good time.”
Mark Bloom and Marcella Truppa are CAU members and a long-time couple who attend the prom every year. This year they combined the outing with Truppa’s birthday.
“The food was good and we had two cakes,” Bloom said. “They had great music and everybody was dancing.”
“We look forward to the prom all year,” Truppa said.”We enjoy it. It’s really nice.”
Both Bloom and Truppa encourage other members to take advantage of not only the annual prom but also the array of social events and programs CAU offers members throughout the year.
“If they go to the prom they’ll know what it feels like to take part in the programs,” Bloom said. “We’re trying to get more members to enjoy everything CAU has to offer.”
CAU proms are open to the public and Zorrilla believes non-member guests receive a strong message.
“By attending you can get over your fear of the unknown,” he said. “If it’s something new to them maybe they become more accepting. Watching our members and seeing the camaraderie, walking away I think people would feel changed.”
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