Mark Melamed never got married, and never had children.
So that let him spend a lot of his life taking care of other people's kids.
He was a teacher for 31 years, mostly at Vineland's Memorial Junior High School. He taught social science, but he did much more than his basic job - and not just for kids at a school he loved so much that he said the place was "family" to him.
He also ran a theater program that put on ambitious productions by junior high students from all over Vineland. His last show, "Broadway Classics Revisited," was just in April. He had already retired from teaching by then, and was fighting pancreatic cancer.
But Melamed still volunteered to direct the musical, and his show went on less than two months before he died in June, at 56.
He grew up in theater - his family was active in the Little Theater of Vineland, now the Cumberland Players. Mark was one of four Melamed boys; several others went on to jobs in show business. Mark himself was a member of the TV actors' union who liked to work as an extra on his favorite soap opera, "General Hospital." He even became close friends with a few of the stars.
Mostly, though, he directed theater productions by local community groups, and ran decades of those school shows.
But there was nothing at all local about many children Melamed helped in his life. In about 1990, he saw a TV show about kids in the African nation of Zambia dying because where they lived, "They didn't have the facilities or the equipment or the doctors to save them," said Maryann Dougherty, an old friend from Vineland - who, like many friends, met Melamed in a theater program.
"He said, 'Why doesn't somebody do something?' Then he thought, 'Maybe I can do something.' And he started fundraising with his kids" from school, Dougherty said.
That started The Gabriel Project, which in the last 20 years has raised money to help children from countries around Africa, the Caribbean and other places get to Deborah Hospital in New Jersey for life-saving surgery.
Melamed got volunteers to sell sausage sandwiches at big events. He auctioned off show-biz memorabilia, and "he'd do Read-A-Thons - anything he could to raise money," said Sue Cicchini, of Vineland, a longtime friend and school colleague. "He got support from Deborah, but there was one little boy, named Gabriel, who died before he got help. And that's where it got the name."
During what turned out to be Melamed's last show, the stage at Vineland's Memorial School also got a name. There are many more reasons why there's now a plaque on that stage, saying it's "dedicated in honor of Mark J. Melamed, for his untiring service to the students of Vineland."
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