By Times Herald-Record Staff
Posted Jan 4, 2020 at 8:01 PM
They are not politicians or highly paid business folks. They’re not necessarily household names — unless you, too, are active in your community.
These 20 local individuals are people identified by the Times Herald-Record reporters as key influencers in the region — people who will help shape the coming year. Keep an eye out for how they will make a difference in 2020.
Don Berger, a founder of citizens group Residents Protecting Montgomery, leads efforts in fighting against massive warehouse development in the community.
The group has gathered 500 members since it was established in April 2019, who expressed concerns over how the environment, noise and traffic might affected by the development.
His group played a role in pressuring Medline into withdrawing its application for $17.6 million in property tax breaks for its proposed warehouse site and urging the town government to update its master plan. The influence of his group will continue through the coming year as a dozen warehouse proposals are pending before governing bodies.
“My hope is that our community will come together and institute a smart growth policy that will benefit the future growth of the Town of Montgomery,” Berger said.
In today’s technological world, it’s more important than ever to connect with nature. Jackie Broder, director of the Mamakating Environmental Education and Interpretive Center (MEEIC), encourages people of all ages to appreciate the beauty outside their doorstep.
The town created the MEEIC in 2016 in a home it bought out of foreclosure. On five lushly wooded acres adjacent to the Bashakill Wildlife Refuge in Wurtsboro, it was fairly dormant before Broder was appointed in September 2019. Since then, the MEEIC has tripled its attendance with programs on bald eagles, opossums, turkeys, and other woodland jewels. Broder hopes to host more school field trips this spring, too.
“I want this place swarming with kids, learning like they’re supposed to learn,” Broder said, as Ty, the therapy dog she’s training, lay at her feet. “I wanted everybody here, preschool through the elderly.”
Hannelore Chambers followed a dream, and now her two children and other children of all abilities throughout Warwick have a beautiful place to play.
Chambers – a transplant from Minneapolis a decade ago – formed the Warwick Playground Dreams committee in December 2016. Its goal was to build a new playground at Stanley-Deming Park. By April 2019, the group had raised $350,000 and organized more than 900 volunteers to build the inclusive playground over the course of a week.
The Warwick Valley Rotary Club honored Chambers in October as Citizen of the Year. Not one to rest on her laurels, Chambers forged ahead, excited to be working with the Wickham Works arts organization on projects she’s not yet ready to reveal.
Chambers credits others who inspired her to act: “There are wonderful people in Warwick who care about their town, see things they can improve, and go out and do it.”
Only a month after it opened, the kids already are flocking to the St. John’s Street School Community Hub in Monticello.
Martin Colavito, the director, hopes that’s a sign of even better things to come.
“Every day between 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. we have between 50 and 60 kids showing up,” Colavito said. “There’s a little core group that comes up every day.”
The Hub offers them free tutoring and educates them about underage substance abuse, nutrition, dental hygiene and more, but also gives them a chance to relax and play basketball, ping pong or board games.
At the outset, some said they would be lucky to draw 15 kids.
“We’re quadrupling that,” he said.
The Hub serves all of Sullivan County, and Colavito says eventually they will serve all ages, everything from senior programs to after-school child care.
“A year from now, this will be known as a safe place that serves all,” Colavito predicted.
Thomas Burr Dodd, 50, plans to redevelop the former Public School 6 into the P.S. 6 Center for Film and Television at the corner of Liberty and Renwick streets in the City of Newburgh. The $3.1 million project, which has City of Newburgh approvals, recently won nearly $1 million via two state grants.
Plans call for transforming the long-closed former Liberty Street school into soundstages; gallery, office and sound-editing spaces; a film screening area; plus a training center for film and TV crews. Dodd owns production and property management companies, Brooklyn Fire Proof and Riprap LLC, and he’s known locally for his Navigating Newburgh Tumblr blog.
In the eyes of Naomi Hersson-Ringskog, small is beautiful.
Hersson-Ringskog, 37, moved to Newburgh in 2018 from New York City and has used her education in urban planning to start small, yet powerful, projects that improve the quality of life in Newburgh in a collaborative way.
In New York City, Hersson-Ringskog worked with an organization that repurposed empty storefronts into mini-museums with site-specific art exhibits. That is when she fell in love with the idea of pulling together small projects that can make a big difference in a community.
Locally, she works mostly through her organization, Dept of Small Interventions, that focuses on arts and culture, historic preservation and cultural history, and transportation.
She has big plans in-store for 2020, which includes an in-depth Newburgh arts and culture study that will collect feedback using focus groups and surveys. The study will take inventory of the arts and cultural landscape that makes Newburgh, Newburgh.
Joanne Gerow is the founder and president of the Catskill Animal Rescue Inc. in Liberty, she’s the director of the Liberty Animal Shelter and town constable, and she’s animal control officer for the Town of Fallsburg.
She’s a fierce advocate for animals, handling strays, cruelty cases and surrenders.
She’s become a go-to person for animal issues.
In April, thanks to a million-dollar donation by Sullivan County mogul Alan Gerry and the Gerry Foundation, Liberty and the rescue got a new animal shelter on Old Monticello Road, a vast upgrade over the old makeshift shelter and, at times (with town permission), a barn on Gerow’s own property.
The new premises are the fulfillment of Gerow’s long-term efforts.
With the opening of Liberty’s new animal shelter in April, Gerow said, she and her staff have adopted out more than 200 animals, all rescues, to new homes.
Gerow said they’ve even found homes for 10- ,12- and 14-year-old dogs and an 18-year-old cat.
The Catskill Animal Rescue runs a pair of Facebook pages, one posting photos of animals up for adoption, and a separate “Lost and Found” page to signal-boost postings about pets that have gone missing and animals who’ve been found loose or injured.
Raluca Gold-Fuchs, 41, is co-owner, with her husband Christian Fuchs, of the Hudson Sports Complex. She’s leading an $80 million multi-phased project to upgrade the athletic training center at the former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility in the Town of Warwick.
Plans include a domed sports field, dorms for overnight youth sports camps, an esports gaming arena and a 90-room hotel and retail including areas for local farmers and vendors to sell their wares and sporting goods space; plus up to five more turf and grass fields. The couple also hope to make the site home for a European soccer team’s training camp.
Niki Jones runs the marketing, advertising and public relations firm that bears her name, and is the president of the Port Jervis Citywide Neighborhood Watch. In that capacity, she has helped bring about changes in the way her city and the surrounding area think about and respond to the opioid epidemic. Operation P.J. Pride, a community outreach and education program, grew out of a Neighborhood Watch heroin forum. P.J. Pride continues its work thanks to significant grant awards.
Among the initiatives PJ Pride has sponsored is the Reality Tour anti-drug program, one that Jones brought to Port Jervis. She proposed the interactive program, which has a solid base of evidence to back its effectiveness, to Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler. She wrote up a grant proposal, and Hoovler agreed to fund it, with Catholic Charities of Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties as the financial agent. Reality Tour has its next performance on Jan. 16 at Port Jervis City Hall.
Annette Kahrs founded Hope Not Handcuffs Hudson Valley, a program that works with police agencies to help people with substance abuse problems get into treatment.
All the person seeking help has to do is walk into a participating police department and ask for help.
The all-volunteer program sends “angels” equipped with treatment resources, a care package of comfort items and necessities for the person in need of help, and a friendly face to help the person get that help.
Kahrs secured a license, training and the blessings of the original Michigan Hope Not Handcuffs program and started the local organization in November 2018 under the auspices of the Tri County Community Partnership.
The organization website currently lists a dozen participating police agencies in Orange County and seven others in Dutchess, Putnam and Rockland.
Early success has brought the program state and federal grants that will help it continue its mission to fight the opioid epidemic (and other substance abuse issues) by connecting people to treatment programs that fit their needs.
Pending City of Middletown Planning Board approval, Andy Leider, 67, aims to turn the Fort Knox Self-Storage Building at 9-29 Canal St. into 32 one-bedroom and 30 two-bedroom apartments plus 40,000 square-feet of commercial space, including potentially retail.
Besides that $9 million project, he’s also applying for final site plan approval to turn the former Acme Bus Corp. building at 21 Fulton St. into a fire truck museum.
“Middletown is a city that’s undergoing a renaissance, especially the downtown area thanks to the Middletown government,” Leider said. “The area very badly needs this type of housing. It does not have much fair-market housing.”
A Silver Stream Village mobile home park resident, Yvonne Maldonado, advocates for homeowners in manufactured home parks in the region. A protest she led secured an agreement of 3 percent rent increase, compared to the 5.3 percent increase proposed in November.
To address residents’ concerns about the future of the community, she facilitated a community meeting with the property owner. She’s also an activist on social media, providing support and advice to mobile homeowners across the country.
“I want to help people in different communities to find affordable housing, and to be able to live a comfortable life,” Maldonado said.
It only took a few years for Rene Mejia Jr. to become fed up with the broken state of social services for undocumented immigrant families while employed as a caseworker and interpreter in Poughkeepsie.
He couldn’t stand government telling undocumented immigrants to use social services to improve life for their families if they did not qualify for those services because they were undocumented.
His frustration pushed him into the world of volunteering and immigrant justice advocacy with the local, grassroots group Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson.
NLMH hired Mejia, 26, of Newburgh, in July to be a full-time organizer in Newburgh.
The group led the charge last year in convincing Newburgh city government to create a municipal ID program and support a statewide effort to keep Immigration Customs and Enforcement agents out of state courts.
In the new year, Mejia has already begun to work with city government to develop a plan for counting all residents in Newburgh’s immigrant communities, not just Spanish-speakers during the 2020 Census.
In 2007, Miriam Strouse and Ann Guenther were concerned about climate change. Following the lead of Bill McKibben, who wrote one of the first books on global warming and began the group 350.org, the women started the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition. And 13 years later, their activism in the Hudson Valley corner of the world is going strong. Jess Mullen is the Coalition’s chairperson and president.
The Coalition meets weekly in New Paltz, and has written grants to help fight against projects like the natural-gas-fired Danskammer Energy Center in Newburgh and the Cricket Valley Energy Center in Dutchess County, said Mullen. It is applying to certify New Paltz as a Climate Smart Community, hoping for bronze status like Kingston has.
But it’s not just a fight they’re after: The group hosts meetups for outreach and education– the next one is Tuesday at Lagusta’s Luscious, titled “Climate Smart Food Choices: Plant-Based Diet.” It’s also spearheading a book club next month, as well as planning kid-friendly events.
“New Paltz Climate Action Coalition energizes people about the causes/consequences of climate change, providing widespread public awareness and accessible solutions,” Mullen said. “We use outreach to educate, and empower individuals, households, businesses and municipalities by providing them with measures that will help decrease their role in climate change.”
Find them on Facebook or at newpaltzclimateaction.org.
Bringing the Town of Wallkill Police Youth Coalition’s technology up to date, with new tablets and projectors, in 2020 is a priority for Rosa Otero-Walsh.
A grant the coalition got from Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther’s office allowed the department to purchase $25,000 worth of equipment so young people can learn more about how police use that technology and teachers can offer lessons outside of school.
A mother of eight herself, Otero-Walsh can list from memory name after name of the thousands of kids who have joined the organization that fosters a relationship between community youngsters and police officials.
Last year, they hosted a Hope, Love and Peace march with area veterans; they helped open a community garden, and they’ve opened the program up to be more inclusive of Spanish-speaking locals.
“It’s real,” Otero-Walsh said of the program. “We’re looking to empower these kids.”
This year Otero-Walsh, a radio host and retired NYPD detective specialist, was also inducted into the state Veterans’ Hall of Fame. She served in the U.S. Army from 1982-1996, starting when she was 19 years old.
As executive director of Sullivan 180, it’s Sandi Rowland’s job to improve Sullivan County’s health, which an annual ranking repeatedly shows near the bottom among New York’s counties.
Rowland is up to the challenge, but cautions to expect a little improvement this year, a little more next year, and so on.
“This is a long process, we’re going by degrees, as our name suggests,” Rowland said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”
Sullivan 180 is working with businesses, schools, and grassroots community groups, getting young families eating right and showing those who have developed bad dietary habits how to change their lifestyles. A new program this year will focus on sleep’s role in health.
Rowland said even if the county’s health changes, it won’t always be reflected right away in the numbers from the state Health Department, the Centers for Disease Control and other sources used by those who compile the list.
“The data is always lagging behind,” Rowland said.
Rabbi Rachel Rubenstein took the helm as executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County in 2018, and has distinguished herself since then as an effective advocate for the Jewish community and partner with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office in combating anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry through school assemblies, public forums and other means.
District Attorney David Hoovler praised the 28-year-old leader for the important work she has done with his office, but also for the energy and determination he said she has brought to many tasks and that make her an influential figure in the region.
“She’s young, energetic, willing to go anywhere, and do anything to get her point across,” Hoovler said. “Most importantly she is one of the few leaders of any organizations I’ve met that is willing to listen and willing to step out of her comfort zone to effectuate change.”
Activities that Rubenstein will lead this year include the federation’s Zachor Anti-Semitism Initiative, which offers anti-bias training and Holocaust education classes for Orange County schools and communities and provides support for people who have faced anti-Semitism. The federation also will expand its PJ Library program, which provides free Jewish children’s books to families and sponsors community programs.
Founded in 1963 to protect Storm King Mountain, south of Cornwall-on-Hudson, Scenic Hudson has become a local leader among environmental groups.
Ned Sullivan has been its president since 1999.
Now, the Poughkeepsie-based nonprofit is questioning the need to build a new Danskammer natural gas plant in the Town of Newburgh. The proposed $500 million, 535-megawatt facility would replace Danskammer’s existing 68-year-old, 511-megawatt natural gas plant along the Hudson River.
For Danskammer’s state application process to build a new plant, Sullivan and his staff recently filed comments on behalf of multiple municipalities, environmentalists and concerned community members.
As champions for the region’s natural environment, as its website explains: “Scenic Hudson has long been considered a leader in safeguarding the Hudson Valley’s irreplaceable landscapes — including the region’s productive family farms — while advancing balanced and sustainable development, and protecting our land, air and water from pollution and other threats.”
Besides questioning Danskammer’s need, Sullivan and Scenic Hudson’s other projects and efforts will be worth watching in 2020.
Newburgh Community Land Bank takes forlorn properties and renews them. Over the past seven years, the Land Bank acquired 116 vacant or abandoned properties and returned more than $5 million in assessed value to the tax rolls.
Last month, the bank’s board welcomed a new executive director, Jennifer Welles, who has 19 years of experience in home ownership and cooperative business initiatives with the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation. She has also worked training tenants who were interested in home ownership.
For 2020, the Land Bank has raised an additional $2 million from Enterprise Community Partners Community Revitalization Initiative to focus on creating two-family, rental assisted homeownership opportunities, enable new Habitat for Humanity projects, and continue to prepare rehab-ready structures for homeowners and restorers.
Owner of 6 West Barbershop in downtown Middletown, Freddie “Foxx” Williams plans to start a nonprofit, Wayne’s Heart, this year in honor of his late brother, Wayne, who died 25 years ago at age 27 from a heart condition.
Williams, 40, a father of two, lives in Middletown 10 houses down from where he grew up. He had the idea to open a community-based barbershop for years and finally made the jump in 2018.
He hosts regular men’s fellowship meetings and local fundraisers for Middletown school families.
He hopes to keep the momentum going in 2020 through Wayne’s Heart, to continue providing something to the community and offering a safe, constructive place for area youth to spend their time – like the Middletown High School students who frequent the barbershop’s counter.
“I want to try to put you in a position to win,” Williams said.