NJ nonprofit celebrates perseverance and blessings this Thanksgiving

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ELIZABETH, NJ — When Barshay Stinson became part of the Transitional Opportunities Program at Community Access Unlimited five years ago, he was an 18-year-old looking to leave the foster care system; at the time, he had rarely left Jersey City.

Today, he has a job he enjoys and is thrilled to be moving in with his fiance and baby girl in January. He realizes he has much to be thankful for, despite the many challenges this year has brought.

“This year has been very exciting for me,” Stinson said. “The most difficult part of this year was dealing with the coronavirus with my fiance, because I couldn’t come to all of her appointments. The most stressful thing was making sure I saw my daughter being born, because I was working when she went into labor.”

As a delivery driver for Amazon, a job he’s held since last January, Stinson weathered the chaos of online orders earlier in the year and says the job is a great fit because he loves to drive. Stinson led youth advocacy efforts at CAU as president of MAC Attack, the presentation-services arm of the group’s Members Action Committee, for four years. He spoke at conferences and had the opportunity to travel around New Jersey and the country meeting young people who grew up in similar situations to his and wanting to speak about the issues affecting them.

“This program exposed me to see more of New Jersey and have a bigger outlook on life and what I want to do in the future,” Stinson said. “I’m thankful too for my support counselors for pushing me a lot.”

CAU is a Union County–based, statewide nonprofit that strives to integrate people with disabilities and youth at risk into the general community through comprehensive support. TOP provides comprehensive residential services to youth and support services to prepare them for a self-reliant adulthood.

“I am thankful to CAU and the staff I work with,” said Stinson’s roommate, Ramone Cajigas. “I am thankful that I am able to work on having a better relationship with my family and that I am trying to do better in my life every day.”

As people with special needs, members at CAU faced and overcame unique challenges this year, including a months-long lockdown for those living in residential programs, state-mandated closure of day programs that provide critical structure and enrichment, and thorough safety and cleaning procedures in all programs that will continue for as long as COVID-19 remains a threat. Many adapted to new virtual services to continue their education and other goals at home.

“Being confined in the house because of the pandemic was terrible,” said member Wendy Smith, who had to leave her job in assembly at a warehouse program. “But when you’re in the house, you have to stay positive, not negative.”

Smith said she is still counting her blessings — she got engaged last year and is looking forward to a full Thanksgiving feast on Nov. 26, prepared by her direct-support staff and enjoyed with her housemates.

Asked what they were most thankful for this year, CAU members and staff also said that they found new gratitude for their lives and surviving the start of a pandemic.

“Even though 2020 has been full of unwelcome surprises — the pandemic and a diagnosis of breast cancer for me — I am thankful for my faith in God,” said Rose Kuprianov, a support coordinator at CAU. “I am grateful for my family and for my daughter Natalie’s support professionals, who have been invaluable during the pandemic, so that I could continue my service to the individuals I provide support coordination to.”

Photos Courtesy of CAU