A small house located on North Chestnut Street provides more food, counseling, clothing, shelter and comfort than any mansion could ever dream of. Family of New Paltz, a non-profit community-based social service organization run by veteran director Kathy Cartagena, is in the midst of a critical time. Not only is it the thick of the holiday season, when financial pressures mount and stress and addiction are palpable, but it’s also a time of massive layoffs, a plummeting economic recession and, more specifically, there are people still reeling from the massive fall flooding and the damage incurred.
After touring the house — which is now piled high with food pantry items, leftover baked goods, donated winter coats and clothing, diapers, toiletries and bags of holiday gifts for more than 200 children in need — Cartagena sits down with the New Paltz Times in her modest office to talk about what Family does, its many roles and the challenges with which the organization and the community that it serves are faced. “It never stops,” says Cartagena. “We had a woman in here yesterday who has been sleeping in her car with her three children. It’s hard enough for people to make it when they have a two-income household, but if one loses a job, you can go under quickly; and if you’re single and lose your job, how do you pay your rent? That’s how people end up in cars.”
There was a teacher who brought in a colleague to Family several days earlier because “she was all bruised up from her partner, and her friend forced her to seek counseling, which we offer here.” Domestic violence, Cartagena points out, “has no dividing line in terms of social or economic standing.”
One of the oldest programs that Family has operated is a domestic violence shelter for woman and children of Ulster County. Sadly, that shelter is often full with women and children trying to rebuild their lives and get away from their abuser.
Family has an on-staff substance and alcohol abuse counselor and case manager, as well as a domestic violence counselor and advocate, not to mention a highly trained volunteer staff that operates its 24-hour emergency hotline. “It can be very hard and painful when you pick up that phone and listen to the raw pain and heartbreak of people,” said Jeannette Moore, a warm and compassionate volunteer at Family, who took the training to work the hotline, among many other duties that she assumes. “You have to listen and be a sounding board…but some of the stories break your heart, and you do what you can to assist and listen and hope that they get past that moment and find the more long-term help they need to get back to a good place.”
While a Thursday afternoon was bustling with warmth and friendship and people coming in to pick up food or clothing that they or their loved ones needed, and others coming in to drop off bags of gifts for a family whom they “adopted” for the holidays, there are still many days or moments in a day that can be tough. “We had a young man who came here one day and was suicidal,” recalled Cartagena. “We did our best to counsel him, but came to the decision that we needed to call the police so that they could get him safely to a hospital so he didn’t harm himself.”
As she recalls the scene, with the New Paltz Police Department officers in the kitchen, this young man wanting to take his life or bolt, you could feel the tension. “The New Paltz Police are so wonderful; people have no idea. They could have taken him down. That’s easier. But instead, this one officer just kept talking to him, calming him for hours so that they did not have to take him down and strap him. That’s a horrible thing to see.” Cartagena, always so full of love and laughter and vibrancy, started to cry. “I’m sorry, but to see someone in so much pain have to be taken down and strapped…it’s horrible, but in this case they got him to go willingly.”
“The intensity and heartbreak we have here sometimes just make you wonder how any one of us can cross that mental health line,” said Cartagena. “It’s the part of my job that’s the hardest. I think to myself, ‘I could be doing nails somewhere!’”
But Cartagena was meant to do what she does: New Paltz’s own Mother Teresa, seemingly boundless with her compassion and generosity to each individual who comes into the Family fold. And that fold grows bigger and bigger, with the dividing line between “those in need” and the “rest of us” becoming elastic, if not almost obsolete, for the 99.9 percent.
“The first group that went under were the laborers, independent contractors,” she said, “then massive layoffs. Add to that those impacted by the flooding and it’s been unreal. People are losing their homes, their apartments, their cars. Our shelters are booked, sometimes with a waiting list; and we have many more people in need who I think are afraid to come here and ask for the assistance they need because it’s a very visible location and they’re under the false impression that their needs are any less critical.”
To that end, the staff at Family works to help people get the education/vocational training that they need, find services that can assist them with rent or mortgage payments where available, house them in shelters, provide education, prevention and substance abuse counseling.
“Look at this,” she says, pointing to the presents in the “girls’ room” and the “boys’ room” that will be doled out at the annual Elks’ Club/Family holiday party, as well as to more than 200 families so that they have something, mostly clothes, to give their children. “This community, even as they’re struggling, is so unbelievably generous.”
She recalls a woman from New York City who spends holidays in New Paltz who just “handed me a $10,000 check!” That same woman this year handed Cartagena a “$5,000 check for our flood victims.” Few have that kind of money to give, but Cartagena said that there are “people on fixed incomes or who have lost their jobs that still drop by cereal, canned goods, even a small check to us. It makes you want to cry.”
As people come and go, they always stop to talk with Cartagena, give her a hug, receive her warmth and interact with the volunteers. “This staff is amazing,” said one woman who did not want to be identified. “They do it all, and somehow keep laughing and smiling…. It really is a family here.”
“Our staff is phenomenal,” agreed Cartagena, “whether our professional counselors, lawyers, caseworkers and our volunteers…we couldn’t do this without them. And we have fun, when we can!”
To learn more about Family of New Paltz, the variety of services it offers and how you can either utilize those services or contribute to its efforts, call 255-8801 or log onto the website at www.familyofwoodstock.org. You’ll be happy you did. ++