Sept. 7-13, 2006
Hope and Healing
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Unity Acres is a sanctuary for the weary
For the 75 or so men living at Unity Acres, there are at least 75 or so stories to tell. Most of them have a few common elements — addiction to drugs or alcohol and a past that includes hopelessness and desperation of one kind or another. The silver lining to their storm clouds lies in the form of a serene oasis where they can get their heads together, use their hands for work and hopefully erase some of the sadness that they carry in their hearts. Unity Acres in Orwell was founded more than 35 years ago and there is still a sense of wonder about a place where the philosophy is “the men are free to stay a day or a lifetime…” The fact that it is still home for men who have no other place to go is amazing in itself.
There have been changes over the years. Unity Acres was founded by Father Ray McVey and Kate Stanton as an alternative to the city’s homeless shelters. Father McVey was a peace activist and a priest of the Syracuse Diocese who could call Dorothy Day a friend. He died in 1995 and there were times when those left behind wondered if the place could stay alive. It has. All of the friends of Father McVey and supporters of Unity Acres have managed to pull together and today the former sanatorium in Oswego County is painted a bright white and reflects all the peacefulness of a retreat center. Jimmy Francis, 57, has lived at the Acres for a year and a half and, although he has hopes and dreams for the future, he’s awfully glad he found his way there.
Francis grew up poor on 59th Street in Manhattan in a four-room apartment with his parents and three sisters. His mother taught him how to steal meat and coffee from the supermarket and his father didn’t make it to Francis’ Confirmation because he was drunk. They kept a padlock on the shared bathroom door in the hallway at his apartment building because the junkies would use the room to shoot up. Not so surprisingly, young Jimmy started drinking and using drugs when he was 14 years old.
He spent more than two decades serving prison time for drug or alcohol related offenses. His wife, a nurse, stayed with him for 26 years before finally deciding she’d had enough. Francis said his wife never drank, never smoked and never used drugs.
“She really liked to travel and we’d go all over,” Francis said. “Disney World, Vermont…all these places and the whole time all I could think about was how I could get high.” Francis said whenever he had the chance for work or a better opportunity, all it meant was more money to buy drugs. He did a lot of construction work, mostly fitting aluminum siding. He was a truck driver and a gas station attendant too, but there was always the allure of heroin in the background.
By the time his wife left him, Francis was ready to give up on his life. During one of his jail terms one of the staff tried to help him out with a few dollars and directions to a shelter in Binghamton. Francis spent the money and hitchhiked to Syracuse. He hung out at Columbus Circle near the Cathedral and attended Mass on Sundays sometimes. Francis also went inside to keep warm, but he said it was a soothing place for him.
He slept in the cab of the U-Haul trucks near Erie Boulevard and stole sandwiches, candles and paperback novels from the grocery store nearby. “Can you imagine?” Francis asked. “I was sitting there reading a book from the streetlight inside the cab of a U-Haul truck and I actually thought to myself, ‘Well, this is pretty good. This ain’t too bad.’” Then, Francis said, it hit him. “I asked myself, ‘Are you crazy? You’re sleeping in the cab of a truck and stealing your food and you actually think it’s pretty nice.’”
One of the parishioners at the Cathedral pointed him in the direction of Jail Ministry in Syracuse where Paul Frazier stepped in and took Francis to lunch and connected him with Unity Acres. Francis said that after coming from Manhattan, a place like Unity Acres is hard to fathom. “There’s no pressure here, no stress,” Francis said. “I walk to the cemetery every morning and I really can’t find words to describe it, but it’s spiritual there. I sit on the bench by Father McVey’s grave and it’s just a very spiritual place.”
Francis said one of the main reasons Unity Acres works is because of the incredible staff. Steve Dickhout has been working there for nearly two decades. Bill Spurrier has also worked with the men for several years. Father Bob Jones celebrates Mass on a regular basis in Sacred Heart Chapel at Unity Acres and Peg McCarthy stays there as well. It is a dedicated core group that treats the men with dignity and kindness.
Francis has had a couple of run-ins with the authorities since he’s been at Unity Acres, most recently for stealing beer while he was out on a pass. The judge told Francis he would need to spend one year at the Acres without a pass and, if he “messed up” again, the judge would make sure that he served time.
“I got out of jail and Steve was waiting for me in the parking lot with a cup of coffee and a cigarette,” Francis said. “Can you believe that?” Newcomers to the staff are Laura Paddock and her brother Mark. They arrived almost three years ago from Tucson, Ariz.
Laura, who is a recovering alcoholic herself, has a deep faith that brought her to service at Unity Acres. She experienced a direct call from God telling her that she and her brother would serve the homeless. While she was in Tucson, she looked around the area for a place to serve that population. Her brother remembered Unity Acres from an experience in the past, and they both managed to make their way to New York and to the Acres and asked if the staff needed any help. They have been there ever since. Paddock recently bought her first home in Lacona, a town near Unity Acres.
“So here I am,” she said. “I’ve never owned a house but since stepping out in faith, He’s blessed us. When we step out and listen to God, He blesses us. This has definitely been a ‘God thing.’ I’m really happy here. I love the men. They are wonderful.”
The men at the Acres consider it their home and they work hard painting it, keeping the animals and garden tended, mowing, fixing the plumbing and repairing wood work. There are some men who pass the time playing pool or cards, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee which is perfectly acceptable as well. There seems to be a balance of labor and idleness that exists among the men.
Mark Coon is 55 years old and idleness is not likely part of his vocabulary. He likes working on repairs at Unity Acres and prefers to keep busy. His journey took him all over the country, including some time riding freight cars on the railroad. Coon lied about his age and went to Vietnam when he was just 16. He served on a reconnaissance mission and was captured and put in a hole in the ground with a bamboo roof with the rest of the half dozen soldiers in his unit. “They [the captors] poked at you, they [expletive] on you. And then when I got back to Tacoma, Washington, [from Vietnam] they spit on us,” Coon said. “I flew back to Syracuse in civilian clothes.”
Coon married his sweetheart from junior high school and is still married although his wife lives near their daughter in Minnesota. They can’t seem to stay together right now so he’s content to be at the Acres, which he’s called home since 2001.
His travels were often via his thumb, Coon said. He joined so many other disenchanted soldiers and became part of the anti-war demonstrations when he came back. Coon said back in the 1970s people were very generous. They offered rides, meals and even motel rooms when he hitchhiked. “That don’t happen today,” Coon said. “Today, you could stand at the corner all day and never get a ride.”
Eventually Coon ended up in jail serving six years for robbing a liquor store. The store owner saw Coon’s rifle, which he said wasn’t loaded, and he grabbed a pistol and shot at Coon as he was stuffing the money in his pockets. Coon got away with the crime for a while until a friend was arrested and told the police about Coon’s robbery to shave off some time on his own sentence. Now he’s content to work on projects at Unity Acres. “If something’s broke, I fix it,” Coon said. “If something needs to be made, I make it. I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for this place.”
Jimmy Francis has been through 15 drying out programs in 23 years and much of that time was spent in prison. He said, “You don’t stop drinking in prison because you want to, but because you have to. “This time I think I’ve got a handle on it. It would be hard for somebody to quit who didn’t have a dream to stay clean for. Thank God I still have dreams and hopes. When you look at a sunset and you don’t dream, it’s a terrible thing….I don’t want to lose the ability to dream. It’s important to have that when you’ve done what I’ve done.”
Unity Acres survives because of a group of people who share Father McVey’s vision. There is a Fall Festival planned to benefit Unity Acres from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 21 at St. Ann’s Church, 104 Academy St., Manlius.
There will be music by Jamie Notarthomas, reflections by Frank Woolever and contributions of humor from Jerry Berrigan. Father Ted Sizing will be master of ceremonies.
A suggested donation is $20 for adults with children under 12 attending for free. Call (315) 298-6215 for ticket information.