Call her Aliza.
She graduated from college last week, and she’s appropriately proud of it.
Aliza is not her name, but she knows that when you’re about to go out into the world, you don’t want someone to google you and find out that your path to graduation was aided by an organization like J-ADD. So when J-ADD director Dr. John Winer asked Aliza if she would agree to be interviewed, she agreed, but insisted her actual name not be used.
Aliza grew up in a suburban Orthodox Jewish community on the East Coast, south of New Jersey; the vagueness here is her preference. Similarly, she has celebrated her 30th birthday but declined to say how recently. For high school, she went to a girls-only yeshiva; she studied in a seminary in Israel that offered a special program.
She has lived in residential programs offered by J-ADD, and before that by other organizations; now she is living independently in a Teaneck apartment under J-ADD’s auspices.
“I never really thought I was smart enough to get a bachelor’s degree,” Aliza said. “There were a lot of moments I felt like giving up because I didn’t think I could do it, but there’s something inside of me that was like, Aliza” — she smiles as she uses her chosen pseudonym — “you’ve got to get this done. Got to do it. Once it’s done and behind you and over with, you’re gonna feel so good about yourself.”
She already had earned an associate degree; that had taken her three years. The bachelor’s degree took another three. She graduated with a degree in fashion merchandising, “just shy of honors,” she said.
She had saved her hardest classes for the end, reasoning “you’ll have more strength and more successes to look back at, with more ammunition to help you tackle it. I had business law and international business, corporate finance, accounting, economics, statistics. It was really hard. I really didn’t think I could do it.
“When I got my associates in fashion design, I struggled with that too, but that was like a completely different level.
“It’s not impossible to achieve goals, and you know, to aspire to something that you never thought you could do,” she continued. “When you hear people say, ‘I don’t think you could do it,’ or ‘it’s not possible for you,’ I’m saying that anything’s possible, if you work hard enough at it. I really believe in the power of dreams.”
Aliza “grew up feeling different, a very heads-in-the cloud kind of person. I love drawing, singing acting, writing — I’m very much a creative and performing artist.”
She has “something called social pragmatic communication disorder, which is similar to autism,” she said. “It’s on the spectrum. But it’s very, very very high functioning. You can’t really tell that I have it. I feel it inside my head. I just basically speak a different mental language, and sometimes reading social cues is difficult.
“People think that people with disabilities or people with mental limitations can’t ever be completely integrated into the general community. I just want to be here to let you know that it’s not impossible.”
Growing up, she “dreamt of singing on Broadway,” she said. “I dreamt of living in a New York studio apartment with two cats, a dog, and a fish. And then moving to New Rochelle, getting married and having four kids in a big giant mansion with a black Lexus, a black Infinti, and a black Acura.
“It never happened.”
But another dream did come true.
“I’ve always dreamt about living in Teaneck, because when I went to summer camp when I was younger, all the cool kids were from Teaneck,” she said. “And I remember telling myself, Aliza, you’ve got to get to Teaneck.”
She became a J-ADD client three years ago, living in its Elmwood Park home before moving to her Teaneck apartment.
“I really want to thank J-ADD because on my journey toward independence, they’re kind of the missing link between where I was before and where I want to be and where I am now,” Aliza said.