“She had a tremendous heart,” said Jackie Elwood of her friend and mentor Netta Meltzer. “She never wanted to see a family or a kid hurt by anything. She would go out of her way to make sure a child had what he needed. Her main idea was to make them happy.”
Many, many others echoed Elwood’s sentiments about “Miss Netta,” the North Bergen resident who for nearly 30 years ran the town’s Special Young People program and other initiatives for individuals with disabilities. Although such programs sometimes stop serving children with disabilities when they get older, Meltzer made sure that there were programs for adults too.
Netta Meltzer passed away on Tuesday, March 24. She was 67 years old.
Changing North Bergen for the better
Meltzer’s life changed dramatically in 1984. That was the year she lost both her parents and her husband. Feeling the need to go back to work, she became a teacher’s aide in North Bergen. Then she got a job at a summer camp for children with disabilities, and the town has never been the same.
Inspired by the children, Meltzer approached the new mayor, Nicholas Sacco, whom she knew as the former principal of Horace Mann School, where her daughter went. Meltzer suggested to him that they develop a program for children with special needs.
“She was an amazing woman and she’s going to be missed by so many people.” –Jackie Elwood
“Actually a small program existed when I took office in 1985,” explained Sacco. “It only had about seven children in it. Netta said that she could build this up into a really good program for children. And that was the beginning of what she established.”
Initially hired to assist a teacher who ran the program, Meltzer quickly put her mark on things. By the second year the teacher told Sacco that Meltzer should be running the program.
Over the years the initiative expanded and spawned new programs. “There were so many aspects to it,” said Sacco. “At one time, she was running five different programs for me.”
Among the programs Meltzer established and ran were holiday parties for hundreds of children. She took kids on trips, including to the Special Olympics.
“She started years ago to help families out throughout the year,” said Elwood. “She’d find needy families and give them a Thanksgiving meal or a gift card.”
And then there was the summer day camp.
“The summer camp is at the North Bergen Recreation Center on 61st Street,” said Elwood of the five-week program. “They have to be in a special ed class to be in the camp. We pick them up, depending on where they live, at 7 in the morning, go till 3 and drop them all off. They play games all day long, baseball, basketball, kickball, and go on trips once a week.”
“Some as they grew older became her assistants in the program,” said Sacco of Meltzer’s children. “She brought up a whole group. They would be supervisors on trips.”
Leaving a legacy
“One of the most unique things things she did was create an adult program,” remembered Sacco. “She was working with the children and they were growing older and then they were no longer in the program, so she realized there was a need.”
Recognizing that need, she filled it, creating a program that still runs from September to June for individuals ages 16 and up, with some participants in their 60s.
“They meet every Wednesday night and organize themselves into officers of the club,” said Sacco.
“It’s the highlight of their week,” added Elwood. “We pick them up in their homes on the bus and bring them to the Nutrition Center and play games, take them to dinner. We go to movies.”
“The thing about Netta,” said Sacco, “is if the program started at 7, she started at 5 on the bus. Then after it was over at 9 she was on the bus getting everybody home. The same in the summertime. She would be there early in the morning on the bus, making sure everything is supervised. She took it very personal.”
And so did her kids.
“She would get phone calls in middle of the night from the police department regarding one of her kids,” said Elwood. “The kids wouldn’t talk to anyone but her. So she’d leave her house at 4 in the morning to go to the police station and get things straightened out.”
“She did a lot for this program, for the kids, for her friends. She was an amazing woman and she’s going to be missed by so many people,” said Elwood.
Meltzer’s legacy lives on not just in the individuals she helped, but the people she inspired. Many of the volunteers who have assisted in running events over the years say they were brought on board as a result of Netta and her enthusiasm.
“We met on the street one day and started talking and she brought me into the program,” said Elwood of their first encounter 12 years ago. “Best move I ever made in my life.”
Elwood, who had been working closely with Meltzer ever since, took over as director when Meltzer decided to retire about two years ago. The programs have continued essentially unchanged from the way Meltzer established them.
“For Netta to have done done a good job, it shouldn’t end,” said Sacco. “It’s still very effective.”
“I’m basically following in her footsteps,” said Elwood. “It was her program. It was her life. It was her baby.”
Netta Meltzer was the wife of the late Steven Meltzer, the mother of Helen Meltzer-Soto, the grandmother of Gabriel and Justin, and the sister of Sidney and Martin.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.