Last time we met up with Agatha Bacelar, she was surviving an ice storm in Upper Red Hook and fussing with sourdough starter.
But there’s a whole lot more to Bacelar, 30, than her love for baking. She sees a greeter program, yet to be named – complete with goody baskets, pot luck dinners, trivia games, and deep-tissue friendships – in Red Hook’s future. And she’s quietly networking with dozens of Red Hook leaders to make it happen.
“Onboarding isn’t just something that happens in companies,” Bacelar says. “I would love to see a sort of civic onboarding here in Red Hook.”
If yeast and stranger meetups sound downright quaint – so, well, 1952 – consider this: Bacelar has a degree in product design from Stanford, speaks four languages and, with other 20-somethings, helped launch and run a blockbuster Covid-19 testing business in California, Florida, Texas, and Washington D.C. Imagine running PCR tests on up to 200,000 samples a day: Bacelar ran field operations for Curative. And her fiancé, Paul Fletcher-Hill, led the software engineering, product, and design teams for the company. They were hires 12 and 13 in a firm that grew to more than 7,000 at the height of the pandemic.
“It was a blessing and roller coaster of a work experience,” Bacelar says.
With the greeters project top-of-mind, Bacelar is surely not scurrying about her kitchen in a gingham pinafore and hair curlers, like the gals of yore who distributed goodies and coupons through Welcome Wagon in the 1930s. Instead, she is quoting statistics she finds worrisome and motivating:
- Two-thirds of young people report not feeling connected with their communities; half say they do not have time to participate locally. (Pete Davis, Dedicated).
- Today’s Americans trust our neighbors less than those of any other generation. (Pew Research Center)
- Three in ten young people report feeling lonely often, and one in five reports having no friends at all. (You.Gov Survey)
- No more than 1 percent of Americans are really active politically. (Atlantic.com)
Bacelar and Fletcher-Hill, 29, are among the latest youthful arrivals to Red Hook, here because they love the town and the Hudson Valley and are eager both to put down long-term roots and to participate in the community. They see themselves gardening, baking, doing yoga, and – for him – tinkering with heat pumps and tools for electrifying homes.
On the greeters project, Bacelar is mindful of her new-kid-on-the-block status and is moving in for the care, not the kill. She’s a worker and a doer. To wit, she has created a 23-page Google doc with ideas for the program. She’s written trivia questions for party merriment: What does “kill” stand for in the context of the Sawkill? How do egg yolks get their color? And she’s imagined small-group chats at big-group functions. Local civics would even be included: participants could learn the difference between Red Hook Village and Red Hook Town or discover that the Hudson River flows in two directions.
Bacelar is also working diligently to bring herself up-to-speed, to rectify any myopia born of newcomer status. She’s learned about the sweet treats delivered to new arrivals by Taste Budd’s Cafe and wants to ensure she’s not duplicating that effort. And she’s hooked up with leaders at the Red Hook Area Chamber of Commerce, Historic Red Hook, the Red Hook Community Center, the Red Hook Public Library, Greig Farms, the Cidiot podcast, and others to test her ideas and hear theirs. She’s also developed a spreadsheet listing 80 properties that sold in the past six months so she can reach out to new homeowners. Ever the collaborator, she is already inviting the community to RSVP to the first greeters event – date to be decided.
“Nothing feels better than belonging,” said Doreen DeCarolis, a realtor with Upstate Down in Rhinebeck and a longtime Upper Red Hook resident. “Agatha has such amazing energy that anything she touches will take.”
Dan Budd, founder of Red Hook Responds and owner of Taste Budd’s, concurred after reading through Bacelar’s Google doc. “I think a greeting project is a great idea,” Budd said, “and I would love if it can tie in all of the businesses and every aspect of community.”
Many of Bacelar’s ideas are based on experiences she had in San Francisco meeting new neighbors in living rooms, but other ideas come from materials she’s read from Scandinavia and other welcoming locales. Party game ideas – tell your life story to strangers in four minutes; draw from memory a map of the towns in Northern Dutchess County, then explain it – suggest she’s a natural at bringing diverse people together and making it fun.
No matter what the greeters project is called – Red Hook Hello is the current working title – Bacelar doesn’t want to go it alone. She’s been networking deeply and consistently since she moved to Red Hook last October.
One story is illustrative. On a November 2021 afternoon, driving home, Bacelar tuned in to a Cidiot podcast for which host Mat Zucker (who also pens the Ask a Cidiot column for The Daily Catch) interviewed Dutchess County Legislator Rebecca Edwards. The two discussed the need for a modern version of Welcome Wagon to educate people on who their legal representatives are, what political issues are brewing, how the various local jurisdictions work. Bacelar was overjoyed. “I immediately called Paul to tell him what I’d heard. ‘You won’t believe it, they talked about the need for a Welcome Wagon exactly as I’ve been dreaming about it,’ ” she recalls relaying with delight to her fiancé.
She then promptly emailed Zucker and enlisted his help on the greeters’ idea. Zucker then connected Bacelar to Elisabeth Tatum, executive director of Historic Red Hook. Tatum connected her to still others, including The Daily Catch. The chain of collaboration continues.
“This whole idea came out of a personal desire, that I wish I had more friends and local knowledge when I moved here, and it has since developed into a deeper civic purpose,” Bacelar says.
An International Background
Bacelar’s own origin story suggests reasons for her civic interests. Born in São Paulo, she was raised by her mother, a single parent who was a communications consultant and public relations professional for the Mayo Clinic and for other health and pharmaceutical companies working in Latin America. Bacelar, whose first language was Portuguese, learned Spanish during formative years in Miami and, at school from first grade through early college, she also studied German. She attended a Montessori school for kindergarten, then public magnet schools from grades 1 thru 12, spending every summer with family in Brazil. She played violin, danced ballet, and was a competitive jump roper. She expected to be a diplomat or to work in international relations.
“Maybe the interest in different cultures and diplomacy is what makes me want to be a community weaver today,” Bacelar explains. She quotes from such books as Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in the Age of Infinite Browsing, by Pete Davis. “What does it mean to be a ‘long-haul hero’ and dedicate yourself to a place and community for the long haul?” Bacelar asks rhetorically. “I think about these questions.” She’s also inspired by The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, by Priya Parker.
She also has been a member of the traveling crew for three of the artist J.R.’s Inside Out projects — one on immigration rights to support the so-called “dreamers,” one on voting registration, and another in connection with New York’s garment district at the Port Authority. These projects involve creating huge black-and-white photographs of community members and plastering them to public walls.
From Pots to Plots
The journey to Red Hook for this couple, who plan to marry sometime in the next 18 months in their new backyard, begins on the deck of a San Francisco apartment in the Mission district. There, growing 85 plants in 60 pots in a 12-by-12-foot space, they learned that artichoke seedlings get very large very fast. There had to be a brighter path to self-sufficient gardening, they reasoned. Fletcher-Hill, who grew up in Baltimore, had visited the Hudson Valley after graduation from Yale to hike the Catskills and thought it might be a good place to move. He also had childhood memories. While a third-grade student at the Waldorf School, he had stayed for a week at the Hawthorne Valley School in Ghent, learning rudiments of farming.
As vaccines arrived, demand for the services of Curative began to wane. The couple felt they had done their part on the urgent need of the moment: Covid testing. And they wanted to direct their attention to the climate crisis and community building. “We recognized that we didn’t have to be in San Francisco for that,” Bacelar says. San Francisco also has an infamously high cost of living, and many of the couple’s friends had already moved away because of it. Bacelar is fond of noting that there are more dogs living in San Francisco than children under the age of 18. “We were looking for a place we could raise a family, a garden, and plant roots for the long-term,” she says.
So, last summer, the pair flew East on a purely exploratory trip, saw five properties, and fell in love with the house they now call home. After that real estate debut, they flew from New York to South Carolina to see family for the July 4 weekend. “We showed photos and socialized the idea of moving to the Hudson Valley to family members,” Bacelar says. Support from family was strong. The pair then flew home, kept thinking about the house, made an offer, and deal in hand, sold all their furniture, and drove cross-country for three weeks.
Almost immediately after the October 2021 closing, Bacelar jumped into town life. She joined the Rotary Club, attended the Revitalizing Democracy conference at Bard College, and listened to the three-hour Town Board fall hearing about sharply curtailing short-term rentals. “The desire to restrict Airbnbs signals a fear and wariness of new people coming in and changing the character of Red Hook,” Bacelar says. “I was aware of myself as a newcomer and wondered if I should feel apologetic about moving here without deep roots to the community. But every time I engaged with someone in person, I only felt warmth, excitement, and a welcoming attitude.”
So this spring, Bacelar is ready to roll out the greeters project, whether on Zoom or in person. The first gathering, she hopes, will be fun without being superficial. “I want to host meaningful gatherings where people actually connect deeply with others,” Bacelar says.
And that, she hopes, will keep the idea going for years to come.