The savory smells of cooking, stillness of yoga, rhythmic hammering of nails and pop music melodies fill the classrooms during adult night school at ECLC of New Jersey’s school for students with special needs.

For the past 15 years, hundreds of alumni have returned to the school for cooking, yoga, crafts, karaoke, painting, photography, scrapbook making, drama, board game competitions, fitness and much, more.

The program was started by the school’s principal, Diane Gagliardi of Chatham, to give ECLC alumni a chance to learn new skills, socialize and have fun with their former classmates.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, Gagliardi was honored for her initiative in starting the program and sustaining its growth over the years. “She felt if we build it, they will come,” said ECLC Executive Director, Bruce Litinger of Short Hills. “The first year, we had seven young people. Today, our enrollment is over 100 young adults who attend regularly and whose lives are enriched forever because of Diane’s wisdom and foresight.”

ECLC Board President, Peter Petrou of Parsippany, whose daughter is enrolled in the enrichment program, credited Gagliardi for responding to a critical need. The students at ECLC are diagnosed with a range of disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome and other intellectual challenges they will face for their entire lives. Their leisure and educational options must be appropriate, safe and nurturing.

“She sent out a survey to the parents to find out, ‘What can we do for you?’ One of the responses from the survey was the need for continued education. And, that was the genesis of the program,” said Petrou.

But, Gagliardi was quick to share credit with others for the program’s success. In particular, she named teacher Judy McGrath and one-to-one paraprofessionals Rita Klimkowsi and Rosemarie Rose for helping her launch it. “This program remains a success because we are all in it together, from the ELCC grads, their families and dedicated staff from both the school and PRIDE [adult program] and the ongoing support of Bruce and the Board of Trustees. When the greater ECLC community comes together, we can achieve anything. That is why I know 15 years from today, this program will continue to grow and thrive beyond any of our expectations.”