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Rutherford's Annika Cioffi Breathes New Life Into Local Disability Platform

Disability Pride Parade 2016. The event was started by Mike LeDonne, a world renowned jazz pianist and Hammond organist. Photo Credit: Alma Schneider
The first Disability Pride Parade was on July 12, 2015, the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Photo Credit: Alma Schneider
The mission of Disability Pride NYC is to promote inclusion, awareness, and visibility of people with disabilities, and redefine public perception of disability. Photo Credit: Alma Schneider
Access for All Rutherford had an event in June. Photo Credit: Councilwoman Carolyn Smith
Rutherford Comedian Steve Way performed at an Access for All event in Lincoln Park Photo Credit: Steve Way
Annika Cioffi and her daughters Alexi and Kyra Photo Credit: Facebook

RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Annika Cioffi moved to Rutherford the week the world changed forever, Sept. 11, 2001.

"We watched it all from an air mattress," said Cioffi, 50, who is a Jersey native but hop-scotched across the map before settling in the borough with her husband Pat, 50, and daughters Kyra, 13, and Alexi, 10.

Now a bonafide Rutherfordian, she's a driving force in both the disability community and the arts, lending her energy and talents to Access For All and Save The Williams Center .

Her dual focus sprung from her daughter Alexi's diagnosis with autism.

"Alexi has a beautiful singing voice. Communication issues are a problem with autism, but they can express themselves in other ways," Cioffi said. "Connecting arts and disability -- autism in particular -- is important to me."

"Songs for Lexi," Cioffi's blog, raised money from the sale of a CD, so Alexi could go to Brain Balance program for autistic children.

Her husband, Pat, a musician, relied on his network of friends in the business to donate songs. Artists include Carrie Weiland, Ted Allen, DJ Damian Feat. Lelia, Kyra Cioffi, The NIC, Dayna Kurtz and others.

Cioffi's been building a network of others in the disability and autism community to build a sense of unity and mission.

She belongs to the Rutherford Special Parents Network, to an autism support group in Montclair, she's involved with the Special Olympics, and recently took part in the New York City Disability Pride Parade

"The goal is to build awareness, but also to make Rutherford more adaptive for special needs," she said. "I want to make Alexi's life better now and in the future."

Cioffi said she tries to think five years ahead. "I'm trying to become knowledgeable about her future job training, coaching, residential options. I'm her advocate and I can share what I learn with others."

She's especially passionate about serving on the borough's Access For All committee. The 11-member group is charged with providing opportunities for greater unity and addressing barriers in town.

Access for All is a county-wide, diversity and inclusion initiative spearheaded by Hasbrouck Heights resident James Thebery, Director of the Division on Disability Services for Bergen County Department of Human Services.

"It's catching on like wildfire," Cioffi said of Access for All. "I think 26 communities have their own."

Chaired by Councilwoman Stephanie McGowan and Council Liaison Frank Nunziato, the committee has forged a partnership with BCB Bank on Park Avenue.

"James Rizzo and Kathleen Hansen [of BCB Bank] have been great," Cioffi said, adding they were responsible for funding the handicapped swing at Kidspot, providing box seats to Disney on Ice and sponsoring a June event in Lincoln Park. "They decided to focus on disabilities, which is just heartwarming for our crowd."

Down the road, Cioffi is hoping Access for All and Save the Williams Center can find common ground and goals. "I want them [people with disabilities] to have a voice and be seen."

She points to " Cranford Shining Stars " as the crown jewel. "I'd love to bring the 'concept' of Cranford's Shining Stars here to our stage, and in addition I have also gotten eager yesses from co-producers Beth Wolfe and Sally Curci to bring their show 'on the road' to our stage as well. I work to keep these issues part of the conversation on STWC as the decisions are made about the center for the arts here in Rutherford."

Shining Stars is a non-profit organization comprised of special needs students in Cranford, who love to act, sing and dance. The group produced "A Disney Spectacular" in April.

In the meantime, it's the daily "nagging and pushing" that's part of a day's work as an advocate. "With the nagging and pushing, it eventually becomes in the context of conversation."

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