By JoAnn Paganelli, Adult Day Program Coordinator

In my mid-thirties as a single parent raising my two sons and waitressing, I made a pact to myself to get my GED and take on some college courses. My pact also included to go into a field that helps people with disabilities.

Through my years of waitressing, I befriended a dishwasher named Mark. He was kind, curious, hardworking and loved to eat; he ate a meal as if every bite was pure heaven. I would take him to family functions, the beach (which he loved) and of course out to eat. Even when I left the restaurant we stayed in touch, though eventually we sadly faded apart. But he left me with a sense of purpose to help others who just wanted a friend.

Because of Mark, I have been on this wonderful journey meeting and helping many people. I only hope I have given back to them what they have given me. Hope, caring, normalcy, friendship, someone to talk to and someone to listen when you want to be heard, patience and sometimes nothing more than just a smile. I do not know what has happened to Mark, but I will be forever grateful for his friendship and grateful for the course he put me on from just being my friend.

So the last two decades have lead me to a Saturday Respite Program for the ARC of Essex which I have been supervising for the last 18 years in northern New Jersey, a day program for OTC and a day program and group home manager for Allies. However, my heart for this population thrives in a day program atmosphere, which has brought me to Githens Center. I applaud their ethics, sincerity and true belief that every person has the right to live their lives as best as they can and stand equal to those around them.

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