ELIZABETH – The many facets of the diamond that is community service were on display recently at the 33nd Annual Gala Dinner Dance of Community Access Unlimited (CAU), held Oct. 23 at L’Affaire in Mountainside. The nonprofit honored a social egalitarian, a public servant and an educator.
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.
Richard Wilkinson was honored as Humanitarian of the Year. He is professor emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School, honorary professor at University College London and a visiting professor at the University of York.
Wilkinson is an international author who has done extensive research on the social determinants of health and on the social effects of income inequality. He is coauthor of “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better,” which maintains that that societies with more equal distribution of incomes have better health, fewer social problems are more cohesive than ones in which the gap between the rich and poor is greater.
“What we’ve learned is how divisive is the effect of income differences, making some people feel superior and others feel inferior. It’s something all of you know by experience,” he told the audience.
Yet Wilkinson sees improvement.
“I think the pendulum is swinging back,” he said. “We were moving in a more regressive, conservative direction for decades. I think it’s moving back and becoming more progressive…particularly since the financial crisis.”
Karen Dinsmore was presented with the Public Leadership Award. Dinsmore has been assistant director of the Union County Department of Human Services for 24 years, with day-to-day oversight of 750 employees and five divisions.
Services include programs for older adults, youth at risk, persons living with disabilities and individuals and families facing economic challenges. She has developed and implemented community needs assessments, facilitated partnerships between public and private service providers and implemented inclusive, community-driven processes for distribution of a variety of social service funds.
“Government and the nonprofit community are not appreciated for the work we do, yet when there is a crisis, who are the first ones called?” she asked. “We support every member of society, including those who may have been our detractors in the past. By empowering each of us, we strengthen the community as a whole…I’m very proud to be part of such a valuable service community in Union County.”
CAU honored Marguerite Modero with the Ira Geller Award, which is presented to someone with a significant commitment to CAU, including its members, and best reflects the concept of volunteerism. Modero is a retired teacher of 36 years with the Garwood Public School District who taught vocal and instrumental music along with performing arts and gifted and talented classes.
In 2011 Modero expressed interest in creating a theatrical opportunity for CAU members to team with members of the community in what became the first fully integrated theatre troupe in Union County, the CAU Community Players.
In June 2012 CAU produced its first musical, “Seussical Jr.,” with a cast of 56 from CAU members and staff and members of the community, drawing more than 800 attendees to three shows. This year Modero and the CAU Community Players produced “Beauty & The Beast Jr.” and drew even larger crowds.
“I took a leap of faith and the CAU board took a leap of faith and it paid off,” said Modero, whose daughter is a member of CAU. “It gives every member of CAU who participates a chance to show they are contributors.”
Modero has directed more than 45 shows performed by schools, church groups and community theatre groups yet has treasured the CAU productions the most.
“This has been the most gratifying experience of my career,” she said. “Even though every show is special, the fact that we were able to create this family due to theater was an overwhelming experience.”
Audrey Vasey, president of the CAU board of trustees said, “Each one of our award winners in their own way promotes the same values as do we here at Community Access Unlimited, that of allowing all our members to achieve equality and fulfilling independent living within the community.”
Union County Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski attends CAU’s gala every year and continues to see the value the agency brings to the community.
“There’s no organization like Community Access,” she said. “Tonight, with more than 600 people, it shows how much good work they’re doing, not just for the members but for the community.”
CAU also presented two members with the Colleen L. Frasier Advocate of the Year award, each receiving $500 scholarships. Annie Sims was recognized for advocating for people with disabilities, particularly regarding housing. Omar Anthony Carter was recognized for advocating for at-risk youth.
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