Three longtime couples with developmental disabilities recently looked back on how they came together even as they look forward to Valentine’s Day. All six adults are members of the nonprofit Community Access Unlimited (CAU).
Elaine and Eddie Matthews have been a couple for 33 years and married for 24 years. They met because Eddie once dated Elaine’s roommate before finding his true love in Elaine.
“I thought he was cool when I first met him, very good-looking,” said Elaine.
“She’s a great cook,” Eddie said. “She makes great chicken soup.”
“And he makes great macaroni and cheese,” she added. “He uses his mother’s recipe.”
Mary Jane French and Randy Mercardo have been a couple for 20 years, having met at a Halloween party at the Occupational Center of Union County, now called Inroads to Opportunities.
“We hit it off right away,” French said.
Christine and Lee Bongiovi have been married for 17 years and have a 16-year-old son.
“One of my girlfriends was having a birthday party for me at her house and he was there,” Christine said. “My friend told me he liked me and I went over to him.”
Christine and Lee enjoy each other’s company immensely.
“The best part of being a couple is having someone to laugh with,” Lee said. “Christine and I make each other laugh.”
While some in the wider community hold prejudices about people with developmental disabilities not being intellectually and emotional capable of having romantic relationships, nothing is further from the truth, according to Sarah Eibach, a behaviorist at CAU.
“Romantic relationships are a very important part of the human condition,” she said. “In order to pursue a well-lived life, often we use our sexual experiences as a measurement of our emotional well-being. It’s very important that people with disabilities explore not only their connection to family but also what they envision to be their identity as individuals. It’s important for them to experience romance, including the ups and downs of those relationships.”
CAU operates a Relationship and Sexuality Committee to help members and their families understand the importance of romantic relationships and allow the members to fully expand their life experiences, according to Eibach.
“Our mission is to maximize the individual’s communal experience,” she said.
All three couples are looking forward to Valentine’s Day.
“I’ve got a teddy bear ready for him,” French said, while the Matthewses plan to go out for a romantic dinner. But the day is not quite so special to the Bongiovis.
“Valentine’s Day is every day for us,” Lee said.
“It’s all about being together,” Christine said.
Community Access Unlimited is a statewide nonprofit providing support programs and services to adults with disabilities as well as youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to enable them to live independently in the community, providing supports in areas including housing, vocational skills and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation.
For more information about CAU and its services, call 908-354-3040, click www.caunj.org or mail 80 W. Grand St., Elizabeth, NJ 07202.