It’s hard for most county residents to grasp just how much help is provided through Family of Woodstock, the nonprofit that was created originally to help hippies that found themselves in Woodstock, when they were trying to find the music festival called “Woodstock.” The organization also has a presence in Ellenville, Kingston and New Paltz. The vast array of services offered make it difficult to promote all of them, but Michael Berg, Family of Woodstock’s executive director, has been making the rounds to public meetings to remind elected officials, at the very least. At the February 2 town council meeting in New Paltz, Berg was joined by Ivan Echenique — director of the New Paltz office — and Salvador Altamirano-Segura, a team leader in Ellenville.
This is an organization that’s been adapted over half a century to address whatever the needs are of whoever it is that needs them. “The essence of what Family is about,” Berg said, is case management. That’s a deliberately broad term, because what’s encompassed is equally broad. According to Berg, case managers help their clients with “whatever they need to do.” The precise goals vary by individual, who “have to figure out what they want to achieve.” The culture is free of judgment and directives, because the goals that are set by individuals themselves are more likely to be completed. Case managers are able to offer options, and provide resources, such as helping with securing government aid, housing, employment and substance abuse counseling. They also provide help to families with an incarcerated member, and in reentry into society from state prisons.
An area of rising concern is the lack of child care. As is true in many parts of the country, about half of the daycare options in Ulster County were lost during the height of the pandemic. Berg has been watching the developing of new government initiatives, such as tax breaks for providing child care at work and more assistance for families. In Columbia and Greene counties, Family staffers are rolling out community college courses on how to start a daycare business, completion of which will make students eligible for some aid to open one.
Older youth have been a focus of restorative justice programs, intended to help keep the youngest offenders from doing time for their crimes. Berg said that there are enough felony offenders ranging from seven to eleven years of age for it to be concerning, and that a program which included 54 of them over 15 months led 51 of the children not to get in trouble again.
With intentional diversification in hiring, it’s now easier than ever to get help in Spanish or English. An organization that was started to help hippies is now faced with farm workers who might not have mastered English yet. Altamirano-Segura learned English as an adult, and understands the level of stress of trying to navigate complicated systems in a foreign language. It’s also a way to build trust. Many people on the path to citizenship try to avoid getting help even when they need it, because becoming a “public charge” is a mark that can be used against someone vying to become American in the legal sense. By carefully complying with the requirements of the many public and private grant funders, Family staff members can keep the identities of clients private without breaking any rules.
Family has the oldest continuously-running live crisis hotline in the country, which is how many of those in need first contact the service. Those in crisis may be referred to one of four shelters operated around the county, or set appointments in one of the offices to work on particular issues. Others are lonely and are seeking a human voice.
There’s no shelter in New Paltz, and Berg said that the only barrier to changing that is money. Overall, the southern part of the county, including also Ellenville, doesn’t have as many services available. “Kingston has Novo,” Berg said, referring to Peter Buffett’s foundation, through which a lot of money is provided to help those residents. It’s hoped that Family of Woodstock can be focused more on those in the south who do not benefit from that particular largess.
Family’s offices are at 31 Albany Avenue in Kingston, 221 Canal Street in Ellenville, 51 North Chestnut Street in New Paltz and 16 Rock City Road in Woodstock.