"Miss Netta," said April Siegert, a North Bergen mother who has four children that have all been classified with some sort of special need. "She's a godsend. Everything she does is great. 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 25 years now, Meltzer has totally dedicated her entire life to serving the handicapped and disabled citizens of North Bergen, people that she has dubbed, "the Special Kids of North Bergen."
The "special kids" range in age from five to 63 years old.
"They're all special, beautiful people," Meltzer said. "I just love them. I love their smiles. I love the way their faces light up when they see me. They say, 'Netta, I love you.' That makes my day. There's nothing like it."
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, have 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. There was always something going on. The kids didn't feel the heat like I did. They wanted to go outside and do something every day, even with the heat."
As a treat to the end of the program last week, Meltzer once again treated the participants of her summer program to a party. There were more than 80 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."
Lost parents, husband in 1984
Back in 1984, Meltzer would have never dreamed she would be dedicating her life totally to the care and love of children with disabilities.
"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 the kids with special needs. Sacco was more than happy to oblige.
"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. He gave me everything I needed. I never had to worry. He was always there. I've put a lot into it, but if it wasn't for Mayor Sacco, we wouldn't have this program. People ask me how I do it. I say it's done with love."
Meltzer has one fundraising event, called Netta's Auction, which she puts together each spring in order to defray some of the costs for her program year round. Meltzer also has a lavish Christmas party for the "Special Children of North Bergen" every December as well.
But recently, it was all about pizza and soda for these special ones.
"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. They really enjoyed themselves."
40-year-old loves it
Mary Chamberlain is a 40-year-old woman with some mental deficiencies, but that doesn't stop her from having fun with "Miss Netta" and the other special kids.
"It really means a lot to me, having this camp to go to," Chamberlain said. "I like it a lot. 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. I have a lot of fun with the other kids, going on the trips, doing arts and crafts. I also like helping the other counselors. I like helping Netta. Whenever she needs help, I'm there for her. I look forward to going every day."
Both Chamberlain and Siegert agree that they would be lost if there was not a program like Netta's for the special children of North Bergen.
"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. It would be very hard. I couldn't do it. They love Netta. What she does is invaluable."
"If I didn't have this, I would probably have nothing," Chamberlain said. "I would probably stay at home, doing nothing. I am so glad we have this. It excites me to come here. It really does." North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco stopped by the party and presented Meltzer with
a special proclamation. "This doesn't happen without their support," Meltzer said.
Meltzer thanked the many counselors who assisted with running the camp, some of whom volunteered their time.
"I needed this to help pick me up and they need me," Meltzer said. "I love them. They're all beautiful. We're like a family now. That's what it's all about. It's about family." Meltzer has no rest for the weary. Her regular program begins again in October.
"We'll start registration this month," she said. "We do it all over again."
To comment on this story, e-mail Jim Hague at OGSMAR@aol.com or email@example.com.