This holiday season, the Cabrales family of Elizabeth is counting their blessings because of a choice offered to Daniel, 21.

Daniel is diagnosed with autism and for the past 12 years has attended ECLC of New Jersey’s school in Chatham for students with special needs. Last June, Daniel was on track to graduate, after reaching age 21. But under a new state law, he was allowed to stay in school for an extra year.

student Daniel Cabrales
Daniel Cabrales walked in the June graduation ceremony, but he was able to return to school for another year to make up for lost learning during 2020.

“It was definitely the best choice for him,” said his older sister, Geovanna. “He wants to be in school for the rest of his life. That’s what he knows and that’s where he’s comfortable with his friends.”

The bipartisan state law signed by Gov. Murphy in June allowed students with special needs an extension on their education because of the disruptions to learning and work-place training that occurred in 2020.

ECLC was one of the first schools to return to in-person, classroom learning in September of 2020, however, community integration experiences were not possible for students.

Preparing students for life as adults is core to ECLC’s mission of providing “Education, Careers & Lifelong Community.” In their final year at ECLC, students spend time in the community “job sampling” to get a feel for the type of jobs they might pursue after graduation. With businesses shut down or operating in a limited fashion, and strict COVID protocols in place, those opportunities weren’t available.

Instead, during the 2020–21 school year, work projects came in-house and were completed in the classrooms. It wasn’t the same as being in a workplace, learning the tasks and soft skills required to land and hold down a job as an adult.

Daniel returned to ECLC this Fall and has flourished. Many students like Daniel chose another year, rather than graduate. They are exploring jobs and considering their future options, with support from the transition team at ECLC’s affiliate, Community Personnel Services (CPS).

Daniel volunteers in Kirby’s Kitchen at the F.M. Kirby Children’s Center at the Madison Y. There, he helps the chef prepare meals for children and delivers them, along with his co-workers. He is responsible for light clean up in the kitchen; loading and emptying the dishwasher; and maintaining a clean, neat and organized kitchen environment.

“Daniel does a fantastic job following directions, taking initiative, and being patient while food cooks, which can be difficult,” said teacher Stacie Weber, who is the school’s SKIL/Work Program Coordinator. “He demonstrates great communication skills with his co-workers and takes great pride in his work!” The extra year is allowing Daniel and other students to better prepare for the big leap from the classroom into life after graduation. It is truly a gift.