There’s no disputing the indelible positive impression that Kathy Cartagena made on this and surrounding communities during the 23 years that she spent running Family of New Paltz. Her retirement this past May left some formidable shoes to fill. Now the townsfolk are getting to know Cartagena’s energetic young successor, Ivan Echenique, who came aboard in July.
Actually no stranger to this community, Echenique has come full circle, almost. Born in Chile, he emigrated to New Paltz in 1980 at age six with his mother and elder brother after his parents divorced. His mother, Maria Angelica Salas, is a teacher who spent more than three decades working at the Agri-Business Child Development Center, and the family lived in Gardiner, Rosendale and Poughkeepsie as well as New Paltz during the years when Ivan was growing up. He earned his BA in communications at SUNY New Paltz, with a minor in Spanish, and went on to establish a career in human resources.
But the work world never took Echenique very far away from his adopted home. Working as a recruiter for Adecco in Newburgh and for the Gap Warehouse in Fishkill, he discovered a love for helping people find employment during tough economic times. He smiles as he remembers one woman who “thanked me for making it possible to have Christmas” after he successfully placed her. “I got to meet a lot of interesting people,” he says.
But when the Great Recession hit in 2008, the Gap Warehouse not only stopped contracting with temp agencies, it actually “did away with its third shift,” he recalls. Echenique’s recruiting position vanished along with the rest. That prompted his first foray into the world of not-for-profit organizations: He found that his staffing expertise and his interpersonal skills were a good fit for Ulster/Greene ARC, where he spent a couple of years helping high-functioning individuals with developmental disabilities find jobs. He then went on to a one-on-one assignment working with a nonverbal autistic youth in Accord. “He was a great kid,” Echenique says. “I got close with the whole family.”
Then Family began recruiting for a replacement for Cartagena, and found that the affable Echenique brought an impressive skill set to the table. Not only does he get on well with people in general and thrive on helping those in need, but the fact that he is fluent in Spanish and understands the special challenges to immigrants based on personal experience makes him well-suited to expand the organization’s outreach. His special mission, he says, is to build Family’s relationships with local farmers and develop new ways to provide social services to migrant workers.
Family already has some ties to the farm community, mainly in the form of donating surplus crops to the agency’s Food Pantry. Food contributions from individuals and local businesses tend to peak around Thanksgiving and from farms at harvest time, but, says Echenique, “People always need food.” The new Tops Supermarket in New Paltz gave Family a $500 gift card for groceries at its recent official opening, and the annual Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning was a “big success,” he reports, despite skies that threatened rain or sleet. “It’s our biggest fundraiser of the year. But we did not get a big turnout last year. This year we had twice as many participants, about 800 registrants — probably because we reinstated chip timing. It’s an accredited race.”
Organizing the Turkey Trot dominated Echenique’s to-do list for about two months, he said, but he seems to have weathered his first big test as Family of New Paltz’s executive director with flying colors. He says that most of his learning curve so far has involved familiarizing himself with agency policies and procedures, as well as getting to know the volunteers, many of whom have been with Family for many years. “The volunteers are really what makes that place run,” he says appreciatively. “They know a lot of the clients.”
Echenique is also liberal with praise for Icilma Lewis, assistant director at Family of New Paltz for some 15 years now, who has been showing him the ropes, and for the many local businesses and organizations that collaborate regularly with Family. When we spoke, he was fighting down a case of nerves at having to prepare a talk to deliver at the Reformed Church of New Paltz, which had named Family its “mission of the month” for December. “Pastor Mark and Ann Zaccheo were among the first people I met in town,” he says. He cites the Lions Club and the Rotary for their help with the winter coat drive, and talks enthusiastically about how Garvan McCloskey opened his restaurant at the former Locust Tree on Thanksgiving Day so that needy local families would have a place to go for a communal turkey dinner. “Garvan’s been great,” he says.
With Christmas coming, the organization is still looking for generous community members to donate new toys for needy children or to participate in the Adopt-a-Family program. And don’t forget that checks payable to Family of New Paltz postmarked by December 31 can be used for 2016 charitable tax deductions. “We want people not to forget that we’re here,” Echenique says.
“Every day brings a new challenge, and every challenge is a learning opportunity,” he sums up his first few months on the job. “It’s quite a privilege to be able to help people in need — especially in the community that you grew up in.”