Early Days at Family of Woodstock

November 15th, 2013
Gael Varsi at the Longyear Building

Gael Varsi at the Longyear Building

In 1971 the Woodstock Aquarian wrote, “Family is a crisis intervention service—a 24 hour hotline for major and minor crises. Family is communications—it is a gathering together of the community. It is a connecting service. Receptive in that it answers whatever need is shown. Family becomes a mirror of what is happening and what is lacking. It is open to whoever wants to work—straight, freak, in-between, whoever/whatever. Family becomes a learning process. What does it actually mean to be non-judgmental? It takes to feel out all that Family includes.” This was written by Gael Varsi, Family of Woodstock’s first employee.

Recently I spoke with Ms. Varsi by phone. She said she grew up in San Francisco, CA, and was working as a community organizer in Lloyd Park in 1970. On a trip east to Millbrook, NY, she heard about the job opening at Family. Alex Merson, proprietor of The Pants Shop and founder of Family, was looking to hire someone to run it. The modus operandi of the organization at that time was to help the many young people coming to town after the Festival of 1969. According to Gael, the (then) conservative Republican town had “no drinking fountains, public bathrooms or camping grounds.” She adds that she had to warn kids from California, who planned to camp out, about the “heavy Catskill Mountain downpours.”

The inaugural operating space was at 13 Library Lane. The deal was that Gael would get a place to stay and live off her unemployment checks from California. According to Peter Blum, an early volunteer, one of the initial requests for aid came from 13- and 14yearold runaways. They sheltered where they could, but many were in need of counseling and social services. Other than to the police (and these young people most certainly did not want to turn themselves in) there was no place to go. Peter says that Gael was especially protective of young people who were having parental issues. Instead of immediately turning runaways over to the police, she checked into their particulars. If the kids had abusive parents she sought to protect them and see about placing them with authorities other than the police. This shielded the kids from further abuse. However, if this was not the case she left them in the custody of the police, who contacted the parents.

Blum remembers Gael stepping forward at a town board meeting and giving the chief of police her home number. If people arriving in Woodstock didn’t know where to stay, didn’t know where to go, needed employment or were freaking out, she said her service was standing ready to help. In the beginning, Gael had a single phone in her living room. It was a very informal operation that first year. Gradually word filtered out into the community and more people volunteered. Soon she had afternoon hours covered for Monday, Wednesday and Friday. One person became “Head of the Day” and ran the place for that day. Gael was the top coordinator and ran the operation. Gael feels the template she put in place is still being followed to this day. To help fund operations Gael worked with such area music acts as the Fabulous Rhinestones and Paul Album on a series of local concerts that she characterized as “stomps.” Everyone was encouraged to dance. Some people paired off and others simply danced by themselves. Funds were also donated by Michael Esposito and Woodstock Ventures.

In the beginning Family was severely restricted. All they could do was to refer people to other service organizations. By 1972 things changed and Family of Woodstock began to offer medical services, therapists and a doctor. They moved to the Longyear building on Rock City Road. Another new offering was drug outreach in Ellenville, NY. This was headed up by Michael Berg and David Abel. They inaugurated the Soft Landing Machine, a service that helped people come down from bad trips. Gael said they had a lot of fun naming the new initiatives. After 18 months, Gael Varsi turned the reins over to Michael Berg—who runs Family to this day.

 The late 1960s and early 1970s were idealistic times. A sort of smile-upon-your-brother-help-one-another feeling pervaded Family. Peter Blum, who is now one the volunteer supervisors, says that this esprit de corps still pervades the organization today. He notes, “We are family.”

 

2 Responses to “Early Days at Family of Woodstock”

  1. Dian Allen says:

    First time I have heard of Merson as the founder. Accounts I have read give Varsi as the founder, beginning it in her home (Burger, 2011). Are you sure the description of Merson as founder is accurate.
    References
    Burger, W. (2011) Human services in contemporary America (8th ed) Mason, Ohio: Cengage Learning

  2. Weston Blelock says:

    In the interview for this post, Gael Varsi said that Merson came up with the idea for Family.

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