Keeping Faith

Dec. 5-11, 2002
Keeping Faith
By Steve Dickhout/ SUN contributing writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
In a newsletter dated March 1989, Unity Acres’ founder, the late Father Raymond McVey, reflected on the Acres’ beginnings twenty years earlier, as a sort of a modern-day Exodus; the move from Syracuse to the old abandoned sanatorium in Orwell as something like the Israelites departing Egypt; a flight from darkness and the troubled life of the streets, a flight from an endless cycle of deprivation, poverty, alcohol, drugs, and jail.

Overwhelmed perhaps by an irresistible pressure of grace, Father McVey, together with five trusting men, embarked on an uncertain journey of unseen result, by faith and in obedience to the mysterious promptings of the Spirit. For the men of Unity Acres, it is an Exodus which continues to this very day.

“The grain is low.” So begins a conversation with Emil Vanderhoeght, one of the 80+ residents of Unity Acres, a house of hospitality for men in the northern Oswego County town of Orwell. Vanderhoeght is currently one of the care-takers of the Acres’ small herd of goats and cattle.

Vanderhoeght, 46, is originally from New York City. He has been traveling throughout the state since the age of 15. While in a residential program for alcoholics in Utica this summer, Vanderhoeght was offered instead the chance to go to Unity Acres. Not knowing much about the Acres, Vanderhoeght took a chance to get away from the streets, and agreed to give Unity Acres a try. When he first arrived, Vanderhoeght explains, “I saw the animals and my heart stopped. I fell in love with the animals.” Vanderhoeght quickly got involved in taking care of the 13 cattle and 4 goats which are now domiciled at the Unity Acres property. Asked how he enjoys his chores, Vanderhoeght replies: “I love it. I don’t have any complaints. It’s better than being on the street…. It gives me something to do. I don’t even think about drinking anymore. Out of all the places that I’ve been in, this is the place that makes me the happiest. I was going to take a walk last night because it was Thanksgiving — the day my mom passed away — but I talked myself out of it. I would have picked up a quart of beer. But I didn’t want to have to go away. I’m learning how to say no to it. I was shoveling snow all night long. Then I had to get up to feed the calves this morning.”

Vanderhoeght turns to leave, then stopped: “Don’t forget; the grain is low, and the calves will be hungry.”

Immediately after chapel service, Eugene Rodriguez stopped by to chat. “Why must man put earthly things before God?” Part of the Unity Acres community for more than 15 years, Rodriguez is one of the more senior of the residents. Images and statues of St. Martin de Porres, St. Joseph, Jesus, the Blessed Mother fill much of the available space in Rodriguez’s first floor room. Pictures taken with Father McVey and Bishop Joseph O’Keefe are among his most prized possessions. “When Father McVey passed away, I was one of the pall bearers. I knew Bishop O’Keefe from the Bronx, on the streets,” Rodriguez explained. When Geno, as he is better known, gets ready to leave, John McNard also stops by. Mcnard has become during the past several years Unity Acres’ roving good will ambassador. Accompanying the Acres’ drivers on nearly every errand and trip, and accepting on behalf of the men donations of food and clothing, furniture and other innumerable items, Mcnard also helps to deliver the surplus to churches and outreach centers in the surrounding area and in Syracuse. Mcnard has been with the Acres for about four years, having previously lived at the Oxford Street Inn in Syracuse. “I was working and drinking, working and drinking. It’s a blessing to be here,” Mcnard said, “because I’d be dead or in jail otherwise.”

Another of the caretakers of the cattle and goats is Tom Gravlin, known to all simply as Whitey. Gravlin first came to the Acres during mid-summer of 2002, stayed for a short time, left, but returned about two months ago. He had originally heard about Unity Acres from staff at the Canton-Potsdam Hospital. Gravlin’s former landlord had to sell his house, and Gravlin, who didn‘t have steady employment, needed somewhere to go. Upon his arrival at the Acres, Gravlin immediately found ways to contribute to the smooth functioning of the community. Gravlin gets up to feed the cattle and goats with Vanderhoeght at 8:00 a.m. each morning. Then the two men go around the grounds on a vintage farm tractor picking up barrels of trash from the kitchen and the five residences which make up the Unity Acres complex, currently housing upwards of 80 men.

“It’s been pretty good as far as being cold,” said Gravlin, confiding that he really doesn’t like the cold. “The cows seem to be doing all right with the weather. Caring for the animals helps to take up the time.” Gravlin said he enjoys the work, hauling trash, and bringing hay to the cattle in the pasture, with the old Case tractor. “It’s 57 years old. It take a lot of work to keep it running. It makes it harder when we don’t have the right stuff to do the work.” But Gravlin quickly reminds himself about gratitude, quoting his mother, “Be thankful, you have to do with what you’ve got.”

William Presley, 39, came to the Acres three months ago from Syracuse. Presley first heard of Unity Acres three years ago, when he was in rehab. Recently, in an attempt to break out of the cycle of addiction, Presley decided to try something other than another stint at rehab. “This place is helping me out more than any other rehab,” Presley said, “because of the area — no stores — nobody’s drinking, nobody’s drugging. There’s two AA meetings that I go to every week. I am trying to get my life together. I am trying to get my thoughts together.”

As houseman in the Brick Building, one of the two dormitories where newly arrived residents are first assigned a bed, Presley helps the new residents to become acclimated. “They are generally a nice bunch of guys. I tell the guys it’s a good place. I tell them there’s clothing. I tell them the times to eat. I help the guys get settled in, and tell them when the laundry day is. I tell the guys if they have a problem to come and see me, and I will take it to the office, and they’ll take care of the problem from there. I help the new guys. I tell them to pick up after themselves, but I clean the showers and the toilets.” There are 10 beds in the Brick Building dorm, and sometimes the men need reminders to act responsibly. “You have to have respect for other people,” Presley said.

Isaac Sorensen, 20, has had broad experience living in community. Brought up in a Bruderhof, in downstate New York, Sorensen works and lives in a L’Arche house in Syracuse as an assistant to the community’s core members. After having heard of the Acres during a trip to Orwell this summer, he thought of volunteering his time and talents. Sorensen said he thought it would be a great place to volunteer some time in working with a “positive socially oriented organization.”

Sorensen arrived for a one month stay in late October. With no set agenda and not really sure what he would be doing, Sorensen quickly became engaged in assisting staff re-organize files and prepare documentation to soon be presented to the Oswego County Health Department. In addition to helping in the office, Sorensen got involved with some hands-on chores: “I worked on a roof, put siding on the cattle lean-to, shoveled gravel for the new roadway, corralled some pigs when they escaped…. They were all over the lawn, down by the stream, running in and out of the stone building. It’s been a really positive, interesting experience to meet people face-to-face, who deal with homelessness everyday, and to learn from them what it’s like. The possibility to meet and talk with the men, and mostly to listen, has been wonderful.”

Anthony Leone arrived at Unity Acres on Mar. 6, 1986 and stayed until August of 1987. “I have a good memory for dates and phone numbers,’ Leone said. He recalled that when he first came to the Acres, “I got off the bus, and I met Father McVey. He was in this little car. It was during a snow storm. I thought he was a street person…. I came up on my own that time.” More recently, Leone returned to the Acres on June 4 of this year, sent up this time by New Horizons, a rehab program in Binghamton. Leone has taken a keen interest in the flock of some 50 plus chickens that were donated to the Acres several weeks ago. “Some are layers,” Leone said, “and we can get more out of them. I have packed the chicken coop with hay to create heat for the winter months. I’d like to make the coop longer, identify the laying hens, and build proper nesting boxes.” During the summer months, Leone was able to get involved in working on the Acres’ vegetable garden this summer, planting, weeding, watering, and finally harvesting. He is looking forward already to planting next year’s garden — with some help.

Leone stated that his medical needs are being well taken care of by the staff of the health clinic in Pulaski, and by Loretta, Unity Acres’ staff nurse. “I don’t have to worry about walking out on the street — don’t have to worry about who wants me to drink, to hang out. I’m getting too old for that! If I need anything, I can get it here. It’s beautiful up here. The grounds are beautiful. I used to be in the woods all the time. I’d love to take up fishing in the spring. I love this area. I won’t go back or get involved doing the wrong stuff.”

With the recent departure of Bill Moroz, former executive director of Unity Acres, Will Johnson has come to offer his talents of leadership and service to the community of men at the Acres. Johnson is quick to speak about the small miracles that the Acres seems to rely on. Just last Monday, the staff was trying to track down a vendor for bulk supplies of special grease-cutting soap for the kitchen. By Friday, the very item the staff had been unable to locate arrived, unexpectedly delivered by donors from St. Mary’s Church in Skaneateles.

Reflecting on the example of Father McVey and on his own experience of homelessness, Johnson said, the mission of the Acres is “to help the poor, and the down-trodden, the ones society has written off. It seems he [Father McVey] hadn’t lost hope in improving the person’s dignity. You don’t get the sense that you’re homeless, that you’re poor when you’re at Unity Acres. In a family, there’s a place and a need for each person. There’s chores to be done, and you don’t have to be super talented to get things done.”

Each person comes in with emotional baggage, Johnson said, and the need to heal. “A family setting is a great place to do that. No one is going to pull any punches. They tell you how it is, but with compassion.” Johnson spoke with enthusiasm about the need for each one to contribute. “You can’t just stay in your room, you have to participate.”

To that end, several of the men have taken on the task of building an extension onto the tractor barn to provide increased hay storage and better shelter for the cows and their winter- and spring-born calves. To date, the extension has been framed, roofed, and partially sided as well. “It was inspiring to me to see the initiative and drive of all the men who participated in this project. God really cares for those who are out of luck. He uses human beings, who are willing and obedient — willing to catch the vision. Ultimately He is in control. The vision is still unfolding. God is providing.”

You may contact Unity Acres at (315) 298-6215 or write to P O Box 153, Orwell NY 13426. Additional information is available through the newsletter which is published monthly.

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