"We were going to have Santa Claus as well," said Netta Meltzer, the organizer of the event. "But it was just a little too hot."
Santa doesn't necessarily step out of his cozy North Pole headquarters when it's 102 degrees. In August. But for 55 handicapped and learning disabled children of all ages, it was indeed Christmas last week in North Bergen.
That's because the Special Young People of North Bergen, the group that provides activity for the children who have special needs, enjoyed their end-of-program celebration with "Christmas in August," as the theme of the party.
The Special Young People program ran for five weeks and provided a wide variety of activities for the children, ages five through 70, throughout the summer.
Meltzer, affectionately known as "Miss Netta" to the participants, is the coordinator of the program, which was the brainchild of Mayor Nicholas Sacco 16 years ago.
"Honestly, there is no age limit on a child with special needs," said Meltzer, who has been with the program since its inception in 1985, when there were only 15 participants. "Mayor Sacco started the program and I just sort of took it over. It has grown each year and we're able to help more children each year. Thanks to Mayor Sacco, we're able to keep it going for the children."
Meltzer kept a very busy itinerary for the children throughout July and August. She organized field trips to sites such as Seaside Heights and Rye Playland in New York each Wednesday. The children also received transportation to and from the township pool on a daily basis. They learned arts and crafts, played games, participated in sports. Needless to say, they were kept very entertained.
"We had our own carnival that we raised money for," Meltzer said. "The money we raised went to pay for the DJ for the party. We had potato sack races and other games. We really had a lot of fun all summer."
And last week's Christmas party was the culmination of the program. There was music and dancing galore.
There was plenty of food and soft drinks. The children all received Christmas gifts, courtesy of Sacco, who was on hand to distribute the toys - sort of Santa Claus without the red suit. Many of the toys were donated by Toys 'R Us.
There was also plenty of love to go around the room.
"It really is a great program," said Meltzer, who works as a teacher's aide for the Board of Education during the school year and coordinates a program for young adults with special needs on Wednesday nights throughout the year. "I just enjoy being with the kids, seeing their smiles. That's my reward, to see how happy they get."
Added Meltzer, "Not everyone accepts these children, so it's important to have something like this for them. And they are all so happy and appreciate anything you can give them. They were calling me on the phone at home, telling me how happy they were. That's the greatest feeling, when you're able to make them so happy."
Meltzer said that she has noticed a change in some of the participants, who were once quiet and distant, but have blossomed under the program's setting.
"A lot of the children have come a long way," Meltzer said. "It's really been a blessing."
Much like enjoying Christmas in the middle of a sweltering summer day.