ELIZABETH, NJ — An annual tradition returned to Union County on Saturday, June 27, with the Community Access Unlimited Ira Geller Walkathon.
The event raises funds every year to support CAU services for people with disabilities and youth at risk in New Jersey. Members of the agency, staff and supporters gathered at Warinanco Park in Roselle, some of them seeing each other in person for the first time in over a year, to share mask-free smiles.
“Today is bringing a little bit of community back to the organization again instead of having so much silence,” said CAU Executive Director Bernadette Griswold. “I want to thank all our staff who have helped with vaccinations.”
Members spoke about their excitement in returning to their regular activities, such as church visits and day programs, which have largely been shuttered for over a year during the pandemic. More than 95 percent of CAU members are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, allowing them more freedom to get back to their regular activities and communities safely.
“I’m going back to my day program soon.… I’m excited and happy to go back,” said Shadria Spruill.
“I like my program; I like to plant flowers and water the plants,” said member Diane Caldwell.
Couples that met through CAU programs were also happy to be spending more time together this summer.
Linda Fishwick and Ryan Baker said they have been enjoying meeting up for dates and going out for coffee again. Jennifer Brown and Harold Harris met at the CAU prom two years ago and are planning a July wedding. After a year of limited time together due to the pandemic, they officially moved in together in May.
“Jennifer is excited because she just got her dress,” Harris said.
Staff member Keyshawn Williams started working at a CAU residential program in May 2020 and was ready to get started at the agency despite the challenges of pandemic safety.
“CAU was the first job that I genuinely loved; it’s something I want to continue,” Williams said. “I love working with (the members). They’re the highlight of my day.”
Williams added that his job is hands-on experience as he pursues a nursing degree, with a goal of becoming a psychiatric nurse for individuals with disabilities.
Union County Commissioners Kimberly Palmieri-Mouded and Sergio Granados praised the work the agency has accomplished for more than 40 years in the community.
“CAU is a wonderful organization here in Union County that the Union County Commissioners are so happy to support.… The work that you do in Union County is second to none,” said Palmieri-Mouded.
“We know that you care about the people you work with… You are truly making a difference in people’s lives,” Granados added.
CAU board of trustees member Maxine Neuhauser said the organization has demonstrated resilience in its pandemic response, including being prepared “when the green light came on” from the state to reopen day program services.
“It’s been amazing to see how well Bernadette and her team have managed this crisis,” Neuhauser said. “It’s been a real silver lining at this terrible time to see how well our members and staff have come together for the mission and to make a positive impact.”
Photos Courtesy of Erin Jerome