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River Edge Program Offers Children With Special Needs 'Chance At Normalcy'

Marble Jam Kids provides therapeutic arts programs for mentally disabled kids. Photo Credit: Anna Villa-Berger
(L to R): Sarah Melone & Anna Villa-Berger Photo Credit: Anna Villa-Berger
Marble Jam Kids provides therapeutic arts programs for mentally disabled kids. Photo Credit: Anna Villa-Berger

RIVER EDGE, N.J. — Anna Villa-Bager of Old Tappan and Sarah Melone of Tenafly believe children with special needs require a specific environment to achieve their full potential.

With that as the guiding principle, the two friends founded MarbleJam Kids, a 501c3 nonprofit organization, in 2007.Today, they have a 4000 square foot center in River Edge, NJ offering programs and services 6 days a week.

Villa-Bager, 50, is a former creative producer and broadway performer while Melone, 45, is a physical therapist. The friends are both mothers of children with special needs which helped spark the idea for MarbleJam Kids, Villa-Bager said.

"Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) and related disorders are often placed in highly structured special educational environments with little opportunity for creative self-expression," Executive Director Villa-Bager told Daily Voice. "We are filling the gap for creative exploration that they wouldn't otherwise receive in a special education program or typical after school opportunities."

"We often witness a creative splinter skill from children with autism, an outstanding skill that may not have otherwise been discovered," she said.

MarbleJam Kids has many outlets of discovery including programs for music, art, dance, film, photography, social skills, fitness, Zumba Fitness, yoga, and individual and group therapy. They are also a state authorized provider through the NJ Department of Children & Families and NJ DDD.

During the summer, MarbleJam Kids offers an inclusive film camp run by actor John Travolta's brother, Joey Travolta.

Knowing firsthand what it is like to have a children with special needs gives the duo, along with its staff of therapists, special educators, and teaching artists, a unique perspective, Villa-Bager said.

"We aim to help each child manage their challenges in a way that works for that child," she said. "In addition, parents feel comfortable working with us because they know we understand the concerns."

The goal, Villa-Bager said, is to give children a chance to express their feelings through artistic expression, just like any other typical child would, and to make connections with peers, building a social safety-net of support." she said. "It's so rewarding to see children, youth, and young adults thrive simply because we took the extra time to really discover their interests and presented them in way that works for them."

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