"Miss Netta," said April Siegert, a North Bergen mother who has four special needs children. "She's a godsend. She is so good with the kids. I don't know what I would do without her."
"Miss Netta" is better known as Netta Meltzer. For nearly 25 years she has dedicated her life to serving the handicapped and disabled citizens of North Bergen, people that she has dubbed, "the Special Kids of North Bergen," even though they range from ages 5 to 63.
"They're all special, beautiful people," Meltzer said. "I just love them. I love the way their faces light up when they see me. They say, 'Netta, I love you.' That makes my day."
Old kids and young
Meltzer organizes a program that meets Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year, but during the summer months, she has a five-week daily program that gives the Special Kids a chance to get out, go on day trips, do activities, and just have fun. They get transportation to and from their residences and are treated to free breakfast and lunch as well.
"Every Wednesday, we had a trip somewhere, like Seaside Heights and Keansburg," Meltzer said. "Most of the summer was too hot to go anywhere. But we still went swimming every Monday. Other days, we had arts and crafts, games, basketball, relay races."
A few weeks ago, the Special Kids had a carnival, complete with booths and games of chance.
"They even made the booths themselves," Meltzer said.
To provide a good ending for the summer program last week, Meltzer treated the participants to a party where there were 86 special kids in attendance.
"It was the first time I had so many," Meltzer said. "We just wanted to give the kids a party as a way to celebrate the end of the summer program. We had trophies from the Recreation Department and prizes galore."
How it started
Back in 1984, Meltzer never dreamed she would dedicate her life to caring for disabled children.
"Back then, I just lost my parents and my husband," Meltzer said. "I was upset and needed something in my life. I knew I wanted to go back to work. I got a job as a teacher's aide in the Board of Education. But I knew I needed something that would make me move ahead with my life."
Meltzer worked at a summer camp for children with disabilities and became instantly hooked.
"There were seven children at that first camp I worked at," Meltzer said. "I instantly drew close to them. I knew that it was something I had to do."
At that time, Meltzer approached North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco and asked if she could start a program for kids with special needs. Sacco was more than happy to oblige, and the Special Children of North Bergen Program began.
"Mayor Sacco saw the need to have a program," Meltzer said. "I told him that I wanted to give it a try and see what happens. He gave me the support to do it. I needed. I never had to worry. People ask me how I do it. I say it's done with love."
Meltzer holds one fundraising event called Netta's Auction, which she puts together each spring to defray some of the costs for her program year-round. Meltzer also has a lavish Christmas party for the township's special needs children every December as well.
But last Friday, it was all about pizza and soda for the youngsters. Little Debbie's, the snack cake company, donated the cakes for dessert.
"They really had the most wonderful summer," Meltzer said. "They're all just so happy and excited. They all got along, the younger ones and the older ones."
Mary Chamberlain is a 40-year-old woman with some mental challenges, but that doesn't stop her from having fun with "Miss Netta" and the other kids.
"It really means a lot to me, having this camp to go to," Chamberlain said. "Miss Netta makes me laugh all the time. I've been coming here since I was very little and I keep coming because I think it's great."
Chamberlain and Siegert agree that they would be lost if there was not a program like Netta's.
"My kids love the camp and they never want to stop going," Siegert said. "I would be going out of my mind if we didn't have this, trying somehow to keep them busy. They love Netta. What she does is invaluable."
"If I didn't have this, I would probably have nothing," Chamberlain said. "It excites me to come here."
Meltzer realizes how important it is for the community to have such a program.
"A lot of them wouldn't have anything to do without this," Meltzer said. "A lot of other towns call me and ask how I do it. They want me to do it in their town, but I can't do more than what I do. I'm dedicated to North Bergen. These kids shouldn't be forgotten about. I believe every town should have a program like this one."
North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco and Commissioner Allen Pascual stopped by the party and presented Meltzer with a special proclamation.
Meltzer thanked the many counselors who assisted with running the camp, some of whom volunteered their time. She's taking her counselors on a special trip next week to Ice Cave Mountain in Allenville, N.Y. as a way of saying thanks.
Meltzer said that she will continue to do what she does.
"I needed this to help pick me up and they need me," Meltzer said. "We're like a family now. That's what it's all about."
Meltzer will not rest for long because her regular program begins again in October.
"We'll start registration in September," she said. "We do it all over again."