SANFORD — Neal Meltzer finds inspiration all around him at Waban, the organization for which he serves as executive director.
Headquartered on Dunaway Drive, off Route 4, in South Sanford, Waban provides programs and services to those of all ages who have developmental disabilities and challenges. For Meltzer, there is not one single story that captures the impact that Waban has on those it serves; on the contrary, he says, a whole reel of recurring moments and memories and details are needed to do justice to the organization’s sweep in making a positive difference in the lives of others.
For example, take all the youngsters who attend Waban’s Fraser-Ford Child Development Center and its new Autism Therapy Wing. Oftentimes, Meltzer said, children arrive at the center with parents who love them and are devoted to them but do not know where to begin to meet their needs. In time, though, something wonderful happens: through the intense work that Waban’s teachers do, the children learn how to more effectively self-regulate their behavior. Their parents come to a better understanding of what triggers their child, and how those triggers can be ameliorated. The children learn to communicate, and some of them, who were nonverbal when they first arrived at the center, reach a point when they’re able to say to their parents, “I love you.”
“That’s just incredible,” Meltzer said. “That’s just incredible, and it happens on a regular basis here.”
Those are the children. Waban helps adults to stay healthy and safe and to strive toward their potential too.
“They’ve got so much – so much – heart and compassion for others,” Meltzer said of the Waban’s adult population. “People who have some really serious challenges in their lives are just so willing to give so much of themselves to others.”
For example: members of Life Works, Waban’s daytime offering on Pleasant Street in Springvale, deliver flowers to people in the community – the program is like Meals on Wheels, actually, but it’s Flowers on Wheels instead.
Then there are those triumphant moments: a Waban client gets his or her driver’s license, or a place of their own, after figuring so long that they would never be able to have either. Waban plays a role in all such accomplishments.
“It’s a kaleidoscope of incredible moments that replenishes me and drives me,” Meltzer said. “When the bureaucracy and stuff like that just get overwhelming – which it can – I draw strength from that.”
Yes, the bureaucracy can get overwhelming. This year alone provides an example. Along with other service providers throughout the state, Meltzer needed to fight hard to advocate for the passage of what ultimately would be two bills – a bifurcated version of a larger, earlier piece of legislation – in the Maine Legislature. Passage of these funding bills, LD 924 and LD 925, was crucial to Waban in its efforts to address a shortage crisis in its workforce and to continue to provide services to its scores of clients. In July, the Legislature did indeed pass these bills – and then, in a rare moment of pure bipartisanship, overwhelmingly overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s vetoes of them.
“It was phenomenal,” Meltzer said. “The end result is unprecedented advocacy leading to success – success which means that we have the opportunity now to ensure that the services we provide are going to be able to be continued because we’re going to have enough staff to keep people healthy and safe.”
For Meltzer, the key to doing his part in this funding battle was one-on-one communication with all sorts of individuals: legislators, legislative leaders, heads of committees, committee members – you name it, all of them to be found on either side of the political aisle. The effort involved emails, phone calls, meetings, and more.
And those were individual emails, by the way.
“I’m not a big believer in these blast emails,” Meltzer said.
Meltzer said he believes that the direct, personal touch – as well as the appropriateness and the importance of the funding that Waban and other service providers needed – resonated with legislators and helped LD 924 and LD 925 succeed.
It is for this tremendous heart that Meltzer showed in the statewide fight for this legislation, and for his overall efforts since 2006 to help Waban fulfill its mission, that the York County Coast Star has selected him as one of its “Christmas Angels” this holiday season.
Meltzer said he is grateful and humbled to be named one of the newspaper’s “Christmas Angels,” but he made clear he shares the distinction with others at Waban.
“None of what I do occurs in a vacuum,” he said. “Here at Waban, it’s really the people, day in and day out, doing the work, that accomplishes all that. No one can do any of these things by themselves. It truly takes lots of folks.”
Meltzer also credited his family – in particular, his wife, Kathy – for supporting him and helping to make it possible for him to do all he does as Waban’s executive director.
“They give me the strength and the comfort and the opportunity to be able to do this,” he said. “Without that anchoring point, I won’t say I’d be adrift, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to be as focused.”
Meltzer said the work that he does for Waban is consistent with the work he has sought to do all his life, harking back at least as far as his high school days when he joined efforts to feed the hungry. Early in his career, when he owned a construction company, Meltzer would hire the kind of young people that other employers avoided simply because they were at-risk; he found that by hiring such individuals and providing them with opportunities for hard labor – pounding nails, hauling wood, building whole houses – he could help them productively channel all that restless energy they had. During his pre-Waban career, Meltzer also led a nonprofit in Portland and served in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
“I’ve always felt an affinity for those in need,” Meltzer said. “I’ve always wanted to be impactful and feel that I could do something about a situation. I’m not one to just say, ‘Well, that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it’s always going to be.’ I’ve never accepted that in pretty much anything.”
Janet Tockman, the president of Waban’s board of directors, said Waban has thrived under Meltzer’s leadership for the past 12 years.
“Neal is passionate about our mission to serve individuals with intellectual disabilities,” Tockman said. “At the same time, he is proactive in anticipating challenges and addressing them head-on.
“We are so proud to have Neal as our leader.”
Editor's Note: Correspondent Shawn P. Sullivan serves on Waban's board of directors.