United Way | Give the Gift of a Dream Come True
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Give the Gift of a Dream Come True

Give the Gift of a Dream Come True

Everyone has dreams. Dreams are fundamental to our human nature. They motivate, inspire — they give us something to believe in. And that something can change the course of our entire lives. As a child, dreams were more than the scope of our imaginations, because we believed we had the ability to make them possible.

But what if we were told we had a dis-ability? That our dreams were limited by how we related to the world; or, better yet, how the world related to us? What if our abilities were measured not by our strengths, but by how well we met others’ expectations of us?

What if we were taught that a dis-ability is supposed to be something we wish we didn’t have?

One young man, Jon, a tenant of Bergen County’s United Way’s Very Special Homes, is redefining what it means to have a disability. Jon was diagnosed with Autism at age 3. Although he was born with a developmental disability, he has never let this label define his potential.

What does Autism have to do with having dreams, anyway? “People think because you have a disability you don’t want or need much,” says Jon. “Yes, I think differently, I act differently, but I have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else.”

Jon grew up in a loving and supportive family — his mother is a retired grammar school music teacher and his father us a university professor. In fact, the entire family shares musical talents. When Jon was 5 years old, he developed a particular skill for playing piano by watching his older brother. He now teaches piano to ambitious new learners and sings as a member of the Pro Arte Chorale Professional Choir. “The arts and music were always important to me,” Jon recalls. “Music gave me the chance to be creative and find freedom away from the constraints and expectations of society. It allows me to see what I can do instead of what I can’t do.”

Jon navigated high school challenges and went on to earn a degree in Musical Study from William Paterson University. His education landed him a position on the faculty of the Forum School, which he attended as a youth.

As a teacher’s aide, Jon tells his students that the most important thing they can do is trust themselves: “Never do anything you aren’t comfortable doing.” For people with Autism to reach their potential, they need to find their strengths and the friends and mentors that will support their hopes and dreams. “Find where you belong and surround yourself with good people,” says Jon with a smile.

As a tenant of Very Special Homes, Jon is surrounded by good neighbors and friends. A few of his neighbors went to the same high school and share some of the same memories. “I feel lucky. New Jersey is an expensive place to live and there just isn’t enough housing for people like me.”

Jon was introduced to Bergen County’s United Way through his aunt. As a donor to United Way she received an email about the building of Very Special Homes developments. She immediately thought this would be a perfect fit for Jon. She shared the information with Barbara, and Jon applied and was accepted as a tenant in 2016.
Jon now had the opportunity to live independently, a dream that remains only a hope for the 8,000 individuals with developmental disabilities awaiting opportunities for housing. For Jon, the experience unleashed a whole new world marked by independence, freedom and new responsibilities: paying bills, cooking, taking care of household chores, living with an apartment-mate, and learning to stay safe.

“It’s important for anyone living on their own to learn how to take care of themselves,” Jon reasons. “I love my mom, she taught me how to cook and clean the bathroom. Knowing how to do that is empowering.”

Living on your own for the first time can be challenging for anyone, but with the support of his family and Patrick, Bergen County’s United Way’s Housing Coordinator, Jon was able to make the transition.

“I’m proud of what I accomplished. Anyone with a developmental disability that lives on their own should be proud of themselves. It’s a big step and an important one,” says Jon.

Jon’s aptitude for focusing on his abilities and not his dis-abilities attracted the attention of a young international film maker, Sonja Bozic. Inspired by Jon, she invited him to be the vision behind an independent film, Chocolate Milk. The film uses virtual reality to create a tangible perspective of how a person with Autism views the world.

Jon and Sonja flew to Switzerland earlier this year to pitch the project to investors. Jon stood in front the symposium of panelists and shared the obstacles he faces every day as a person with Autism. Jon tells them, “I want to show the world my perspective… I want people to think of me as just like them, only with some extra challenges.”

Jon won them over and is now working with producers to co-author his experience living with a disability. The film is currently in production and will be pitched at foreign film festival in Amsterdam later this year.

By age 30, Jon has lived the kind of life that dreams are made from. What makes his life so compelling is it breaks the walls between what we believe is possible or impossible for those with Autism.

Many with disabilities don’t know what they can achieve or how far to push themselves because they rarely have allowed themselves to act on their dreams. But without dreams we never enjoy the luxury of life — the thrill of achievement, pride in creation, satisfaction of independence.
Every day, individuals living in our
Very Special Homes are pushing the limits of what they dreamed were possible by going to school, building careers, making social connections, volunteering or raising the conscious awareness of the community about those with disabilities.

So what does Autism have to do with dreams? If anything, it simply reminds us that our dreams are not limited by our ability, but by what we believe is possible.

You can continue to make dreams possible for those with special needs. Your gift will provide opportunities and support for individuals like Jon, to live independently in a home they can afford.