Princeton-based Community Options, a nationwide nonprofit that works with employers to find jobs for people with developmental disabilities, will celebrate its 25th anniversary May 8 with a gala in Princeton honoring former Gov. Tom Kean, who led a major initiative to move people with disabilities out of institutions and enable them to live and work in the community.
Robert Stack, chief executive, said Community Options provides supported employment to more than 1,500 people with disabilities around the country, including about 400 in New Jersey — a number he hopes to double by 2016.
With a budget of more than $96 million and the fifth largest nonprofilt in New Jersey, Community Options supports thousands of families in 38 offices across eight states. The staff provides 24/7 assisted housing. For those individuals who can work, it facilitates employment in production, office and retail jobs.
In 1984, Kean established the Governor’s Council on the Prevention of Mental Retardation, bringing together state officials and citizens with expertise in the area of developmental disabilities.
“Community Options has reopened doors and given hope to so many people with developmental disabilities across the country,” Kean said. “It is a great honor to be recognized by such a wonderful and credible organization.”
Stack said Kean reorganized the state's programs for people with disabilities into a new Division of Developmental Disabilities to address the full range of disabilities.
"This was very, very complicated to do and it expanded the role of government," Stack said.
Stack said when Kean took office, New Jersey had about 8,000 citizens with disabilities in state-run institutions and when he left office that had declined to about 4,000. Currently fewer than 3,000 New Jerseyans with disabilities live in institutions. The state is continuing to move people out into the community and has closed several state institutions in recent years.
Stack said Kean also launched the supported employment initiative, which Community Options and other agencies have embraced in order to move people with disabilities into jobs. He said today thousands of people with disabilities are employed throughout the state "because of the work that Gov. Kean did."
Community Options has established relationships with employers, Stack said, including Toys 'R' Us and AMC Theatres.
"We're the people who butter your popcorn, take your tickets and clean the theater," he said.
Community Options job coaches bring individuals with disabilities to the job site and help get them acclimated to the work. Other employer partners include Marriott hotels, the Hamilton library and YMCA, and Risoldi's Market & Cafe in Mercerville.
Community Options also has an internship program that transitions teenagers from school to work. It has placed individuals with the Robert Wood Johnson health and wellness facilities and at Princeton Medical Center.
There are jobs for people with disabilities regardless of the state of the economy, Stack said.
"The biggest myth is that people with disabilities are the last to be hired and the first to be fired in an economic downturn. These people do the jobs that are needed: they sort mail, deliver flowers, pick up dry cleaning, wash refrigerators, bag groceries," he said.
Community Options has launched several entrepreneurial businesses that build bridges with the business world. They include the Daily Plan-It, which are shared office condos in Princeton, Moorestown and Morristown. Tenants rent office space at the Daily Plan-It, and people with disabilities provide office services — they shred documents, collate documents, deliver mail and set up the conference room for lunch meetings.
Stack said the fourth Daily Plan-It will open on Farber Road in Princeton by year-end.
"We work with more than 25 employers in New Jersey and we would always like to partner with more employers," Stack said. He is hoping to partner with the state's pharmaceutical and finance companies.
The gala will be Thursday, May 8 at Morven in Princeton.
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