Nov. 3-9, 2005
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Connie Cissell
St. Andrew’s Hosts Second Annual Pasta Dinner for Unity Acres The pasta dinner to benefit Unity Acres held at St. Andrew’s parish hall Oct. 27 featured everything from a slide show to a brief comedy act to a testimonial. Unity Acres, now more than 35 years old, provides a home to approximately 70 men, most with substance abuse issues, who would otherwise be on the streets. The former tuberculosis sanitarium is a large, white compound that features well manicured grounds, farm animals and vegetable gardens. There are dorm-like buildings that house the men who come from all over the country to find a home and some peace of mind.
Unity Acres was founded in 1969 by Father Ray McVey with help from his co-worker for years, Kate Stanton. The residence has managed to stay afloat after Father McVey’s death in 1995 and Stanton’s death months later. There have been ups and downs, but a core group of supporters has tirelessly carried on the Catholic Worker tradition of the place. It is that group that came up with the pasta dinner fundraiser. Last year the proceeds amounted to over $10,000 and with heating bills looming ahead, this year’s dinner is likely to help with winter fuel oil expenses. The Acres is located in Orwell in northern Oswego County. The spirit of the founders was one of complete acceptance and love. The men who come to the Acres have the option of staying “a day or a lifetime” as long as they follow the two ground rules: no drinking and no fighting. Over the past several years the addition of farming has been added to the community’s list of life skills. Cattle spend the winter at the Acres and then spring at nearby St. Francis Farm, chickens are raised for their eggs and as pets and pigs are also raised on the 136-acre property.
While spring brings the promise of fresh vegetables and blooming flowers, the winter is always a tough season at the Acres. The buildings are old and face a number of maintenance and repair problems on a continual basis. Stephen Dickhout, the administrator of the Acres who has been there since the days of Father McVey and Stanton, said this year it was decided to close one of the dormitories for the winter. “In an average year we use about 25,000 gallons of fuel,” Dickhout said. “This year we’ve already spent $26,297.57 on fuel oil and we still have November and December ahead.” And, he said, Hurricane Katrina changed the financial plans that the Acres had in place for the winter.
Supporters at the pasta dinner listened to Dickhout’s presentation on the financial aspects of running the Acres. There is a board of directors which helps guide the decision making process and the Acres now has 501(c)3 status as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization. Pasta dinner attendees came from St. Joseph’s in Camillus, St. Lucy’s from the west side (Father McVey’s parish before he founded Unity Acres), St. Andrew’s, St. Vincent’s and many other parishes. The Acres relies on financial support from many parishes and church organizations year-round. Consequently, occasionally speakers from the Acres venture out to parishes to talk about their experiences in that unique community.
One resident, John Lusby, spoke to the dinner crowd. He said he was one of the miracles so often heard about regarding Unity Acres. He came to the Acres 10 years ago as a resident and now serves as a volunteer. Seven years sober, Lusby explained he is a recovering alcoholic who was “missing something” in his life before he made his way to Orwell. He had met Father McVey many years before and had heard about Unity Acres from other friends in recovery. Lusby’s life before moving to Orwell included three winters spent living in a refrigerator car. He credits his survival to Unity Acres and the 12-step program.
Lusby said he eventually figured out that the “something missing” in his life was God. “It’s a funny thing to talk about God,” Lusby said, “but it’s another thing to live with Him. Miracles happen everyday. I see them. There are 70 of us living together and under normal circumstances, we’d be killing each other.” Lusby talked about his “dream team” consisting of Dickhout, Father Bob Jones, Peg McCarthy, Bill Spurrier and the rest of the staff at Unity Acres, and God. “When you walk alone on the street and you’ve got a hole in your belly and the wind whipping through you, that’s loneliness,” Lusby said. He thanked those at the dinner for their donations. “I’d like to thank you for my life because you helped put it back together.” After a slide presentation featuring current pictures of the men at work at the Acres was offered by supporter Bob Belge, another friend of the Acres, Jerry Berrigan, was introduced as a teacher, professor, activist, and as of late, a comedian. Berrigan rose to the microphone to conclude the dinner by telling a few crowd-pleasing jokes.
The first one brought a chuckle especially from the clergy in attendance: “A mother tries to wake up her son for church Sunday morning saying, ‘Get up, get up, you need to get ready to go to church.’ The son replies, ‘No, I don’t wanna go.’ The mother tells him he has to and the son says, ‘But Mom everybody hates me there.’ The mother says ‘Not everybody hates you, just a couple of bullies and you’ll just have to stand up to them.’ The son continues to protest, ‘But Mom the sermons are so dull.’ The mother says, ‘You ought to listen to the sermons. You might learn something.’ Finally, the mother says, ‘Besides, you have to go to church. You’re the pastor.’”
Anyone wishing to find out more about Unity Acres may call (315) 298-6215.