For an hour on April 27, New Jersey’s lieutenant governor laughed, danced, shook hands, and high-fived her way through the Wae Center in West Orange, sharing moments of fun with many of the 65 clients of the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled of MetroWest program.
Within moments after Kim Guadagno entered the center — whose name stands for Wellness, Art & Enrichment — she was treated to a display of slapstick comedy, as two members of the WAE theater group, decked out in formal wear, took turns exchanging pies in the face.
From there, she entered the adjacent art studio and sat down at a workbench to watch Tamila Alexander fashion a bracelet from a set of colorful beads.
“How do you know what colors to use?” Guadagno asked Alexander, a 25-year-old woman who has been blind since the age of nine, was quick to answer. “I ask somebody to help me pick the colors,” she said.
“Wow,” the lieutenant governor responded. “I couldn’t do that with my eyes closed.”
As she left the studio, Guadagno was drawn to Nicky Weeks, teasing him gently about his flaming red hair. Her approach seemed to be irresistible, and in a moment, the two were on their feet, dancing together.
“This place is hopeful,” Guadagno told NJ Jewish News after completing her tour. “People come in here not knowing what talents they are. They build on them. Every day here is better than the day before.”
Guadagno challenged assertions that Gov. Chris Christie’s administration had been shortchanging programs like the Wae Center’s.
“We added millions of dollars to special-needs programs, but government can’t be everywhere and can’t do everything,” she said. “Our goal is to get people out of institutions and back into communities like this, where we believe they can flower and become active members of society.”
Guadagno added that more state aid to the Wae Center and similar places for people with special needs was not needed. “I think government does what it can, but the people here want to manage their own lives.
“What we allow them to do is manage their lives and give them some resources, but this is a community that is finding and dictating what it needs for itself. You don’t want Trenton doing that.”
Linda Press, executive director of JSDD — a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ — said 90 percent of her agency’s funding comes from state and federal grants. “We haven’t had a cost-of-living adjustment in five or six years, but we have not experienced any cuts,” she said.
To Marilynn Schneider, director of the Wae Center, Guadagno “was very engaging. She sat down and talked to everyone who wanted to talk to her, and she was really interested in what they had to say. It was very beautiful.”