By Connie Berry
This Thursday beginning at 5:30 p.m. at Pensabene’s Casa Grande on State Fair Boulevard, a group of supporters of Unity Acres will gather to celebrate the contributions of Bob and Betty Belge, Mark Capone and Mary Klein Maples. The event is an annual fundraiser offering dinner and a silent auction.
Unity Acres, a house of hospitality for men, has provided a home for the homeless for more than 40 years. It was founded by the late Father Ray McVey and Kate Stanton, both had been active in the Syracuse area feeding the homeless before the Acres was founded. A living example of the Gospel works of mercy, Unity Acres still serves the homeless today. It is situated in Orwell, New York in northern Oswego County. The compound is a former tuberculosis sanitarium that houses 70 to 80 men. They grow vegetables and care for livestock. Now days the men do much of the work it takes to keep the place running.
All of the honorees were around when the Acres was a vision of Father McVey’s. He had worked with the homeless population in downtown Syracuse as a young priest trying to put together housing options in the city. Father McVey soon found it was hard for the men to stay sober when they had such easy access to drink. He found the property in Orwell, far away from any pubs in Syracuse thinking it would be easier for the men to survive away from the substances they struggled with. At the Acres, the men were free to stay “a day or a lifetime.”
Mary Maples was there at the beginning as part of a group of Syracuse supporters who delivered food up to the Acres every week. They took shifts and got to know all the great grocers who would donate some of their product. Maples was a dear friend of Kate Stanton’s and was glad to help her efforts to keep the Acres going, even when it seemed impossible. Father McVey was famous for saying, “No problem. God will provide.” And then Stanton would be the one to take on the problem solving and also the one who had to say “no” from time to time.
“They were extraordinary people, Ray and Kate,” Maples said. “They were so single minded in their devotion to their task, and at the same time they were so welcoming. When they greeted you it was like heaven. They were just extraordinary.”
Mark Capone got to know the men who came to the Acres early on because he, like Bob Belge, was a volunteer for years at the Oxford Street Inn in Syracuse. Many of those men found their way up to Unity Acres over the years. Capone was friend of Jerry Berrigan who encouraged him to volunteer with the homeless.
Capone even brought his family to the Acres on many occasions, especially when Father McVey’s early vision included a community for families. That aspiration didn’t really take flight and Capone’s children were happy to get back to their lives in a less rural setting.
“I’ve always been impressed with the way the men work at the Acres. They do laundry, cooking, cleaning, everything,” Capone said.
Capone is an insurance agent by trade and his expertise has served the Acres well over the years. Maples’ strong background in social work also provided help in numerous ways over the years.
Capone and Maples say they both feel passionately about helping veterans and many of the homeless are veterans. Oftentimes, Maples explained, the veterans come back home unable to cope with relationships of any kind. They often find peace at the Acres.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Maples said. “We want to be sure to create a good environment for them.”
Capone and Maples say that their involvement at Unity Acres comes down to Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
Bob Belge’s early involvement also centered round the Gospel message. “I think at the time I was trying to be religious. Then I discovered you could do these good things because they were good, not only because I thought God wanted me to do them.”
Belge said around 50 years ago he heard “some guy” was trying to open a drop-in center for the homeless in Syracuse. He was interested in helping and that’s when he met Father McVey. The Belges have worked to feed the homeless for years. They still volunteer at the food pantry at Assumption Church on the city’s north side. Betty headed up a vital bread baking ministry and also a dinner ministry out of St. Vincent de Paul Church for many years. “Betty has vision and she is always very careful to make sure everyone feels welcome and is treated with dignity,” Bob said.
It wasn’t only the idea of feeding the homeless that attracted them to Unity Acres. They said they found the philosophy of the Acres incredible and one they wanted to be part of.
“If one of the men is ill, someone will stay all night with him if they have to,” Betty said.
“The message is, ‘You are a human being and we love you and you don’t have to do anything to earn that love,” Bob explained.
Their children watched while their parents spent their free hours at work in the ministry to homeless. Bob said the kids liked to tell them they were “giving in to a middle class guilt trip.” These days, nearly all their children perform some kind of service to others.
The overriding message of Unity Acres is one of welcome and hospitality. Stephen Dickhout, executive director of the Acres, said the honorees carry the same message.
“They were all around long before I got here,” Dickhout said. “Bob and Mark volunteered with the homeless. Betty has been supportive and helped all through the years and Mary Maples is a person with a wonderful spirit. Her knowledge of social work has been invaluable.”
The Acres became a not-for-profit corporation in 2000 and all the honorees have been involved after Father McVey and Stanton died in the mid1990s. Dickhout said they have been instrumental in making decisions that keep the Acres going.
The Acres relies on generosity of donations to keep the buildings going, provide heat in the cold Oswego County winters, feed the men — body, mind and spirit.
Anyone wishing to help can visit the website unityacres.org or call 315-298-6215.