Town of New Paltz Youth Director Jim Tinger was recently presented with the annual Hudson Valley Heroes Community Champion Award from the Mid-Hudson Prevention Resource Center (MHPRC) at the Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Council of Orange County, which also serves Ulster, Sullivan, Dutchess, Putnam, Westchester and Rockland counties. Tinger was nominated for the award by Phoenix Kawamoto, community education coordinator for the Town of New Paltz.
“I think what we do here is more important now than it’s ever been,” says Tinger, who began volunteering at the New Paltz Youth Center 24 years ago and became director of the town youth program a year later. “The struggle with anxiety and other mental health issues has been more prevalent for kids in recent years than I’ve ever seen before. And isolation is our big battle now. Before electronics, I used to say we were combatting boredom, because kids get in trouble when they’re bored. And that’s still true, but now battling isolation is the new war.”
A lot of kids today stay home and watch YouTube or play video games alone instead of interacting with other people, he explains. “We live in a society where there’s a lot of stuff to do, but you can do it at home and end up in isolation. And that’s a problem. Even if kids here [in the youth center] are just playing video games, they’re doing it together and in a public setting. That’s one of the things I love about this place; people talk to each other because they have to. They learn to communicate here. The first step is coming here, opening yourself to others, and then being a part of something.”
The youth center offers a relaxed environment that sets up the right conditions for kids to want to speak openly about something on their mind or ask for help without worry about judgment. The counseling that occurs happens almost as a byproduct of the activities available through the center.
“I think the school does a good job,” says Tinger, “and they have a counselor now from Astor in school as well as a clinical psychologist, but we do have a unique situation where they know us by our first names and it’s very casual. Because we know them and the setting is laid-back, we’ll do a puzzle or hang out with them and it relaxes them enough for anything to come out.”
Tinger’s staff of five counselors are of varying ages and personalities, so kids can gravitate toward the person they feel most comfortable speaking with.
And while sometimes people have the perception that the only kids who go to the youth center are the disenfranchised ones, that isn’t the case, says Tinger. Offhand remarks made to him, meant as compliments, that “it’s good ‘those’ kids have a place to go,” don’t sit well with him because, as he points out, the youth center is just as likely to get the valedictorian hanging out there as the kids who are having problems at school. And financially comfortable kids or those with secure, stable home lives, who appear on the surface to have it all together, are as susceptible as anyone else to anxiety issues or depression that they’d benefit from talking to someone about, he says. “Those kids also struggle and need someone to talk to. And they might not talk to their family about it, because they don’t want their family to be disappointed in them.”
Tinger grew up in Hauppauge, on Long Island. He had a passion for film in high school, even keeping a notebook reviewing the movies he saw, but didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life beyond a vague idea of going into filmmaking. “I was always working, and had a good work ethic, but I was a ‘C’ student, and nothing clicked for me,” he says.
Enrolling in a community college on Long Island, Tinger earned an associate’s degree in broadcasting. He had a friend who lived in New Paltz, so despite having been in town just once before, he enrolled at the college, only to discover that broadcasting wasn’t really his thing any more. But in looking at the electives he’d chosen, he realized they were all sociology classes, and switched majors halfway through, ending up with a bachelor’s degree in communications and another in sociology. And while he was completing those degrees — eventually going on to grad school — Tinger started volunteering at the New Paltz Youth Center.
His first experience there, in 1994, was working the door for the haunted house. The town youth program director at the time, Alex Brown, asked Tinger one day, as a sociology student, what he thought the program was missing. Tinger’s response was to create the middle school tutoring program and the Saturday games and recreation night (currently on hiatus due to the construction at the middle school).
The following year, Tinger worked a summer rec program at the high school, and when the youth center director position came up, got the job that September with the help of a recommendation from Alex Brown. When Brown left his job as town youth director, Tinger took on that role, as well. The year 1995 turned out to be an important one for him personally, too; that’s the year he met his wife. Kerry Tinger is a graphic designer who does production design for Luminary Media’s Chronogram magazine. The couple have two sons, Evan, 13, and Lucas, 9.
One of the ongoing efforts at the New Paltz Youth Program has been fundraising for its van fund. The program offers a wide range of field trips, but the opportunity to participate ends up being limited by how many cars and drivers are available, and inevitably, some kids lose out. The goal has been to purchase a van to transport the kids, but while close to $9,000 has been raised in the last few years through functions like the annual Halloween Haunted House, the amount needed for a brand new 15-passenger van — the maximum seating without the driver having a commercial license — is $30,000. Recently, however, the New Paltz Town Board approved the youth program leasing a van. Some of the money already raised will be used for a down payment with the rest going toward regular payments, and additional funds will be raised in the future to continue making payments. Because there’s an approval process associated with any town business, leasing a van will have to wait until that comes through, which is expected to be in January.
Another focus at the center these days is letting parents know about its free tutoring program. “We’re up to 30 classes every day at the middle school,” Tinger says. “There are 752 school districts in the state, but we provide more tutoring to a school district than any other community organization in the state.” The tutors are college students who come to work for the New Paltz Youth Program as work study students or interns. Many are able to get in 10-15 hours per week tutoring three or four classes a day at the middle school. “We are the biggest department that the college funds for work study, in terms of an outside organization.”
Last spring Tinger and Phoenix Kawamoto launched the C.A.F.E. — Cafeteria Alternative for Everyone – program at New Paltz High School, offering high school students another way to deal with stress in creating a place they can take their lunch break in a supervised but more relaxed atmosphere than the cafeteria. In the 18 days the program ran, 930 students signed in. The program returned for the fall term this year, with approximately 60-70 students per day seeking out the C.A.F.E. space daily, but is currently “at a crossroads,” says Tinger, with the school renovations meaning the space used by the students will be needed for administrative purposes soon.
“But they like that we’re there, and recognize it’s a valuable thing, so they’re trying to find space for us to continue,” he adds, noting that the youth program is creating new connections, something he says is important in “bridging the gap from the youth program to the high school.”
When asked how he feels about receiving the recent Hudson Valley Heroes Community Champion Award, Tinger is characteristically modest, saying that the program would be “nothing without the amazing group of people on my staff. One of the unique things about this place is that I can pick and choose people for the jobs. When you just interview people, everybody says they’re good with kids, but it doesn’t always turn out to be true. And our staff were all volunteers first… they were interns, they were work study students… I know them. When I have an opening, I can say ‘I want that guy,’ or, ‘she’s great.’”
Tinger also mentions the impact his work has on his family. “These are not 9-to-5 hours. It’s weekends, it’s nights… they sacrifice a lot.”
The school district and the town play a role in the youth program’s success, too, he notes. “There are no youth programs like this in other towns. Rosendale has a small one and Woodstock does its thing, but town funding just does not usually go toward youth programming. I’ve been through eight town supervisors and a number of town boards since I’ve been here, and every year they could say they don’t want to fund the program any more. But every single one of them has seen the value in it, and they should be commended for that. The fact they allow the program to happen every year says a lot about the town. Community members could go to Town Board meetings and say, ‘Why are we wasting money on this programming,’ but they don’t; they see the value. And that’s vital.”