Meet Michael Berg Executive Director for Family of Woodstock
That title doesn’t even begin to describe Michael’s knowledge and commitment to Family’s work throughout Ulster and other upstate counties. What started in 1970 after the famous Woodstock Festival has grown to more than 20 programs including child care and food security, suicide prevention, restorative justice, domestic violence shelter and court advocacy, and crisis and long-term housing initiatives for single adults, families and youth. Michael’s history with Family begins shortly after the organization, then a loose collection of community volunteers opened its single hotline in Woodstock. Today, Family of Woodstock remains the longest continuously operating 24-hour volunteer-based hotline in the US. With Walk-In Centers and Hotline offices in New Paltz, Ellenville and Woodstock, the original phone number, 679-2485 (with an 845 area code added) is still among the 24-hour hotline’s nine telephone and text lines.
Inside+Out: Family’s origin story is unusual. How did that come about?
Michael Berg: After the fabled rock concert–which actually happened in Bethel, NY, to our south—young people began to arrive in Woodstock looking for the “Woodstock Nation.” They were looking for a utopia. Many were young and needed some guidance. The community was divided over what to do with them. A group of community leaders, including local pastors, came together and a young woman named Gael Varsi stepped forward. She offered to answer phone calls from people in her home. She asked friends to give her a break periodically and a volunteer cadre was formed. Family’s 24 hour hotlines have been answering calls 24/7 for 52 years.
What would you say is Family’s “secret”– to its longevity and to its success at creating solutions in communities?
Our paid and volunteer staff don’t tell people what to do. We don’t burden them with our judgments of choices they have made. People feel safe and they give us their trust. It can take awhile sometimes, but we stay in the conversation. We listen. Another part of our success is the participation of our community. They step up to help. Just last month, when people were calling us in need of baby formula, we asked and people brought what they could spare to help others get through. Our motto is ‘Any Problem Under the Sun’. It isn’t that we can solve anything. It’s that we will try to find out what someone really needs and network resources as best we can.
What was it about Family, in the early days, that attracted you?
A dear friend of mine told me about Family. At that time there was a small group of people who were experienced with the kinds of drugs that were around in the 60’s and 70’s. They were called “The Soft Landing Machine”. I felt I could directly help people who were having bad trips or were confused about where they were headed. That one to one impact was what appealed to me. I got calls at my factory (Lyricon, a woodworking factory in Saugerties) and calls in the middle of the night. I might be in a leadership position now, and not everyone can do that part, but it takes every level of Family to help people find what they need.
Who or what inspires you?
Our mission is inspiring. Our bottom line is “What did we accomplish?” Some days that is hard to see. It feels like we are slipping backward. But every day we help people. We make a difference.
What were some of the services Family offered in the 1970’s that were unique to that time?
We had a very active health clinic and a veterinary clinic too. Actually, over the past couple of years we have supported a quarterly complementary medical clinic in Woodstock so that one is re-surfacing in current times. We didn’t have a food pantry in the 1970s either. Food security is one of our biggest projects throughout the county in the past decade. And that Soft Landing Machine was unique to the 1970’s.
Can you describe the range of services Family offers now?
Family of Woodstock is made up of 22 different services at the moment. They touch emergency and community services like our Walk In Centers, the Hodge Center in Kingston and our food pantries. We offer a range of residential and non-residential domestic violence services including court advocacy. Similarly, we have many kinds of services for preventing homelessness and providing crisis housing. An area we have expanded in recent decades is criminal justice, focusing on providing alternatives to jail especially for youth. We offer “restorative justice” programs in many local schools. We are a leader in daycare services and collaborate with many other groups to bring quality food where it is needed. Our leadership regularly advocates for needed policy changes that have an impact county and state-wide, whether for homelessness, juvenile justice or daycare regulations. Our credibility is based on all that we have accomplished.
Why so many different services under one umbrella? Don’t people find it confusing, especially with Woodstock in the name?
Woodstock has always been more conceptual than geographic. Family came from the vision of a Woodstock Nation, marked by community and caring. Our services have grown organically over time. The needs of our communities have created new programming. We do not limit our programs from doing what is needed to address their clients’ issues. As it turns out, having this network of services helps us connect a person to what they need without having to go outside of the agency, without sending a person somewhere else for this or that. Of course, we collaborate with other agencies and refer to them, but being able to easily pick up the phone and arrange appropriate childcare for someone who is a client in our shelter or to get food to someone who has just moved into an apartment is a big help.
What is something you’d like people to know about Family that they might not?
One of the aspects of working or volunteering at Family is that it promotes a tremendous amount of personal growth. Not just in a person’s understanding of the challenges people face in their own communities, but in their understanding of how they themselves can be truly effective in helping someone. We get to see how we are all just people, struggling in one way or another. Working at Family definitely deepens a person’s compassion.
You just moved into an impressive new space in Kingston, NY, the James and Mary Forsyth House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, at 31 Albany Avenue. What does this represent to Family?
It represents so much! We have grown tremendously over our 50 plus years. It is hard to keep an organization feeling connected. Now we are able to house all of our non-residential staff who work in Kingston in one building. We have lots of parking and it is fully handicapped accessible. In addition, ownership of the building and the solar installation will save over $60,000 in operating expenses yearly.
Family is described as a volunteer-based organization. What does that mean and how has it changed over the years?
Family was started by volunteers. We added a small paid staff after a few years but the core was always volunteers at the hotlines. That has become harder over the years. We often work with people over time and volunteers are not a reliable source of that ongoing kind of attention. We require a level of training and professionalism of many of our volunteers that is more commitment than people have time for these days. That said, our three hotlines are still very volunteer dependent, even through Covid. We have more paid staff than we did in the beginning but not enough to keep that service operating without volunteers. The other thing about volunteers is that it keeps the centers connected to the community in a special way. Callers appreciate that they can talk to someone who isn’t being paid to do it. Most of our other programs are run with paid staff, using volunteers for things like food distribution or providing workshops or tutoring at our shelters. As people in our communities have had less free time, Family has created more time-limited jobs for volunteers. If someone wants to volunteer with Family, I have a ready list of jobs they could help with!
If someone wanted to volunteer, how would they get started?
They can just email [email protected] or call 845-331-7080 ext 174. They could also contact their closest Walk In Center, whether it is Ellenville, New Paltz or Woodstock.
What is the biggest misconception about Family that you hear?
That’s easy. Everyone says “I didn’t know Family did THAT!”
How do you get the word out about Family and all of your services? Do you use social media and how is that working for you?
We do a number of localized events in the communities where we have programs. Of course, we get excellent coverage in local papers for what we do and for our events too. We are trying to use social media more often and get better at it but it is hard for us. We don’t have staff just keeping that up and we have never been particularly media savvy. That is something we could use volunteer help with for sure!
What do you enjoy about living and working in the Hudson Valley?
I love driving around the back roads and being in our incredible natural beauty. It gives me a break from the hard realities of my day to day work.
What is missing from the area that you wish we had?
Certainly housing that is affordable for working people is missing. We get calls all the time from people who cannot find a place to rent and the places that they see are way above their means. It is an issue that is finally getting some attention and some financial backing too. I also believe that our schools could be more relevant. Our young people need to learn life skills and be engaged in the world around them. Attendance would improve I think. The world is always changing and school has not changed much.
What local businesses do you rely on to be successful?
Our local communities are incredibly supportive, both financially and through volunteering. Family would not exist without either.
Tell us something about yourself that people might be surprised to know?
I have a Master’s degree in Ancient Greek!
What is your favorite accomplishment to date?
Today, sitting here in this new building! That is tremendous. I also get a lot of satisfaction from seeing how the agency has grown while keeping our values. We consider the whole person, we listen to them, we treat them with respect and honor their confidential information. We don’t judge them, but we help them see their situations more clearly and together we find a way forward. We have become more sophisticated in applying our values, we have expanded the tools we use, but we still live by our original core.
How do people find you when they have a need?
They don’t seem to have any trouble! Mostly, they find us because a friend or a professional they work with suggests it. Word of mouth is the best PR for Family.
What do you think people will say about Family in 10 years?
Wow– they are still here!
What is your current state of mind?
Honestly, I am feeling pessimistic. There are some positive things going on, especially in our county, but I hear so much anger and frustration out there. There is so much yelling on the radio and it seems that many people are deaf to the needs of the growing number of Americans who are hurting. Our leaders are more interested in making sure the other side gets no credit for doing anything.