News And Events

What's Going On At Unity House

UNITY HOUSE WELCOMES NEW BOARD MEMBER

Lorie Fischer of Union Springs joins agency in leadership role

Auburn, New York – Unity House CEO Liz Smith has announced that a new community leader has joined the agency’s board of directors. Lorie Fischer of the Cayuga County Health Department began her new duties in June.

“Lorie has solid experience and knowledge of special needs in Cayuga County,” said Liz. “This lends well to the organization because many of the individuals we support need and access those services regularly. Lorie was recommended by the county health department, and I look forward to working with her.”

Lorie Fischer holds a B.S. in Education from SUNY-Cortland. She is the program director / early intervention official with Services for Children with Special Needs at the Cayuga County Health Department, where she has worked since 2006. Previously, she held positions at the Gavras Center in Auburn, and in North Carolina, Japan, and San Diego. Lorie served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves from 1987 – 1995.

“I am very excited to be on the Unity House board of directors; I want to remain active in my community,” said Lorie. “I have many years of experience working with the developmentally disabled population. I look forward to being part of a team that helps many people be successful in the community that I live in, work in and love.”

For more information, please contact Director of Marketing and Development Kelly Buck at 315.253.6227 x313.


Celebrating 45 Years of Outstanding Human Service in CNY

Unity House is observing its 45th anniversary in 2022. The agency got its start in 1972 when it began offering housing services to emotionally disabled veterans. The agency leased space in the historic Case mansion on South Street in Auburn from First Presbyterian Church. Twenty-one beds were made available to this population, and a community need was met.

Five years later, it became clear that this need was growing and Unity House decided to expand to meet it. The agency hired its first executive director and on March 28, 1977, Unity House’s articles of incorporation were filed, making it official. In April, the agency obtained not-for-profit status, and the following year, the program was certified as a community residence by the state Department of Mental Hygiene.

While Unity House concentrated on mental health services early on, the agency now also serves people with developmental disabilities (PWDD) and those with substance use disorders. We began offering employment services in 1988, and housing, day habilitation, and case management for the PWDD population in the early 1990s. Unity House received state funding in 1995 to open Cayuga County’s only halfway house for individuals in recovery from addiction. To date, Grace House has supported more than 2,000 people.

In 1997, Unity House was named by the state as the successor agency for HOMES, Inc. in Ithaca, NY. This introduced the agency to Tompkins County. Today, we operate a dozen group homes (IRAs), a day habilitation center, Without Walls day services, seven respite beds, and a large number of independent apartments scattered across the Ithaca area. Even though our headquarters are located in Auburn, the number of staff and people we support has surpassed those in Cayuga County.

Now in our 45th year, Unity House serves more than 1,000 individuals a day in seven central New York counties. We employ about 450 staff, and administer a $25 million budget. Funding is primarily from New York State.

At the root of this success are of course the people – the wonderful people Unity House serves, partners with and employs. Over the course of four and a half decades, the agency has empowered and enriched the lives of so many, and we look forward to doing so for another 45 years.

Unity House is so grateful for the acceptance and care it receives from the many communities and people it serves. We invite our friends to help us celebrate our 45th throughout 2022. Thank you for supporting our mission.


UNITY HOUSE WELCOMES NEW DIRECTOR

Nyka Phelps hired to lead mental health program

Auburn, New York – Unity House’s Chief Operating Officer Darlene Podolak recently announced that Nyka Phelps has joined the agency as the new director of the PROSperity outpatient mental health program. Nyka began her new duties in July.

In her new role, Nyka is responsible for direct clinical oversight and monitoring of all operations for the agency’s Personalized Recovery Oriented Services (PROS) program, located at 146 North Street, Auburn, NY. She supervises six employees while managing budgetary components; program goals, policies and procedures of PROS; and the HCBS/CORE peer empowerment programs that the agency administers.

“As we welcome Nyka to PROS and we recover from limited services during the public health crisis, I’m excited to see how she grows and diversifies our classes and services,” said Darlene.

Nyka holds a Master of Social Work from Syracuse University, and is a licensed LMSW and LCSW. She most recently was a psychiatric social worker in an inpatient unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse. Previously, she worked in family- and school-based psychiatry and therapy is Oswego County.

“I applied because I read some wonderful reviews online about Unity House and amazing collaborations in the community,” said Nyka. “Unity House provides a full spectrum of services through OMH, OPWDD, and OASAS, and I loved the idea of having all these services under one roof. My goal is to have more participants attend groups onsite now that the world is starting to reopen, and perhaps offer groups in other locations while maintaining confidentiality.”


UNITY HOUSE ANNOUNCES 2021 AWARD WINNERS

Trudy Buxenbaum and Sherri Campagnola to be honored at Sept 15 dinner

Auburn, New York – Unity House of Cayuga County, Inc. is pleased to announce its annual award winners, who will be recognized at the agency’s annual dinner on Wednesday, September 15 at Chantelle Marie Celebration venue, Auburn. The public is welcome to attend; details will be shared soon.

The Fred Atkins Community Service Award committee has selected Mrs. Trudy Buxenbaum of Aurora as its 11th annual awardee.

Unity House introduced the community-wide Atkins fund and award in 2011 in memory of beloved Cayuga County volunteer and 30-year Unity House board member Frederick Atkins. The Atkins Award recognizes an outstanding individual who volunteers in Cayuga County and who exemplifies Fred’s high moral standards and philanthropic spirit.

Trudy was nominated by Angela Ryan, executive director of Matthew House. Trudy grew up in southern Cayuga County, and after retiring from a 30-year teaching career at Emily Howland Elementary School in 1995, decided that volunteering was the best way to stay active and involved, and help others. Her appreciation for the work hospice does for people in their final days inspired her to provide respite care in people’s homes, but the schedule was too sporadic. Eventually she came to Matthew House, which has been a perfect fit for nearly 20 years. Over the years, Trudy has also volunteered for Poplar Ridge Instant Aid, Loaves & Fishes and King Ferry food pantries, the Alternatives to Violence program at Auburn Correctional Facility, and the Howland Stone Store Museum in Sherwood. She also helps out at Camp Gregory and the Hazard Library in Aurora, teaches ESL to migrant farm workers in the area, and is actively involved with the Anne Frank Tree Project at Southern Cayuga Central School.

At the dinner, Trudy will receive a $500 cash prize: $250 for her to keep and $250 to be given to the Cayuga County non-profit of her choice. Trudy has selected Matthew House as this year’s recipient to receive the full $500 award, and will present the check to an agency representative at the dinner.

The Open Arms Award committee has selected Ms. Sherri Campagnola of Auburn as its 10th annual awardee.

Unity House’s Open Arms Award recognizes a community member or organization that truly welcomes the people with disabilities the agency supports. The winner demonstrates empathy and genuine delight when interacting with these individuals, helping them to gain a sense of place and inclusion within the community, a hallmark of Unity House’s work.

Sherri Campagnola is the operations manager at Champions for Life in Auburn. She was nominated by Unity Employment Services employee Alley Sliter in recognition of her selflessness, compassion, and respect for the Unity House individuals who work at Champions through the UES program.

Sherri has been with Champions for over 20 years. She moved to Auburn from South Carolina in 1998, and holds a degree in early childhood education. Her love of gymnastics combined with her background with children led her to teach gymnastics at Champions; over the years, she has expanded her responsibilities there. Sherri has been the contact there for UES clients for about ten years. Alley described Sherri as being “genuine around our participants, and recognizes ability, not disability. We’re so grateful to have this connection at Champions.”

Unity House will honor these outstanding community servants at its annual dinner on September 15 at Chantelle Marie Celebration Venue, 5127 W. Lake Road, Auburn beginning at 5:30pm. Cost is $75 per person. Guest speaker will be Jacqueline Cioffa of Auburn; she is an author, champion of women’s rights, and staunch advocate of mental health awareness. The public is warmly invited to attend. More details will be shared soon.

For more information about the award presentation or Unity House’s annual dinner, please contact Director of Marketing and Development Kelly Buck at 315.253.6227 x313.


UNITY HOUSE WELCOMES NEW BOARD MEMBER

Kerry Barnes of Ithaca joins agency in leadership role

Auburn, New York – Unity House’s Executive Director Liz Smith has announced that a new community leader has joined the agency’s board of directors. Kerry Barnes of the Tompkins County Public Library Foundation began her new duties in December 2020.

“I’m looking forward to working with Kerry; I like her energy,” said Liz. “Kerry has years of experience in non-profit fundraising and development, and that was an area of expertise we wished to fill on our board. Her skill sets fit nicely with our needs, and I’m sure she will bring new insight to our work.”

Kerry Barnes has been the assistant director of the Tompkins County Public Library Foundation for the past three years, where she is responsible for public fundraising and development initiatives. Prior to this position, she was the director of development at both Longview and Historic Ithaca. She is an active member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Finger Lakes Chapter; serves on the TCAT advisory board; and is an annual participant in Ithaca Hospicare’s highly successful Women Swimmin’ fundraising event.

“I am thrilled to join the board of Unity House and support its important work,” said Kerry. “As the family member of a person with developmental disabilities, I've seen first-hand the challenges they face in navigating the world and what a vital role Unity House plays in providing support, services, and advocacy in our communities. I'm so proud to have the opportunity to serve Unity House as a board member.”

Kerry earned her B.S. in communications from Ithaca College, and a master’s in elementary education and a master’s in reading education from Alfred University.


UNITY HOUSE RECEIVES TWO COVID-RELATED GRANTS

Ithaca Rotary Club & Cayuga Community Fund each award $930

Auburn, New York – Unity House of Cayuga County, Inc. has been awarded two $930 grants, one from the Ithaca Rotary Club and another from the Cayuga Community Fund, to purchase medical equipment.

The funds will be used in tandem to create 20 emergency Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits for agency locations in Cayuga and Tompkins counties. Each set consists of three pieces of medical equipment: a no-touch thermometer, oximeter, and blood pressure cuff. These important supplies will be invaluable for flu season, COVID-19 positive cases, and other medical emergencies that may arise. Having these kits immediately on hand at each site eliminates the need to travel between locations to obtain the PPE supplies necessary for monitoring service recipients with disabilities. Unity House serves a vulnerable population, many with underlying medical issues, so response time may be essential.


UNITY HOUSE WELCOMES NEW BOARD MEMBER

Christina Warter joins agency in leadership role

Auburn, New York – Unity House’s Executive Director Liz Smith has announced that a new community leader has joined the agency’s board of directors. Christina Warter, the owner of Soul & Mind Evolution in Auburn, began her new duties in April.

“I am looking forward to working with Christina; she will ask the questions that need to be asked,” said Liz. “As the parent of a child with disabilities and as a small business owner, she understands the importance of inclusion and service requirements, and will be able to share her insight with the board.”

Christina Warter is the owner of Soul and Mind Evolution (SAME), a sensory center that offers a supportive sensory experience and programming that is sensitive to individuals affected by autism and other developmental delays. She created SAME as a safe space for her young daughter, who has special needs, and other families and caregivers in similar situations. Prior to starting SAME, Christina was a housing coordinator, community educator and support group facilitator at Community Action Programs in Auburn. She majored in dance at Mills College and SUNY Brockport, holds certification in Autism Movement Therapy, and is a Mindfulness Life Coach.

“Of all the invitations that I have received in life, the opportunity to serve on the Unity House board has been one of the most meaningful,” said Christina. “Unity House has made a positive impact in their mission to empower people such as my daughter. Their person-centered actions have cultivated inclusive communities where everyone, including my own family, can thrive and are celebrated.”


UNITY HOUSE PROMOTES NEW DIRECTOR

Judi Magee promoted to lead mental health housing program

Auburn, New York – Unity House’s Chief Operating Officer Darlene Podolak has announced that Judi Magee has been promoted from assistant director to program director of Unity House’s mental health residential program. Judi has been with the agency since 2017, and began her new duties in May. She replaces outgoing director Sue Morley, who served in this role for 18 years.

"I am excited to take a fresh look at running this department,” said Darlene. “Judi has a lot of experience inside and outside of the agency, and she is wonderful at supporting individuals with chronic mental illnesses. She is very forward-focused, and already has goals laid out for the next six months to three years."

In her new role, Judi has oversight of about 110 residents in the supportive housing programs located in Wayne, Tompkins, and Cayuga counties. She also manages 47 treatment apartments and supervises nearly 40 employees. Judi monitors all person-supported service planning, budgets, policies and procedures, and programming.

Judi holds a B.A. in Psychology from SUNY Oswego. Prior to coming to Unity House, she was an outpatient treatment care manager, a health home care manager, and an intensive case manager at other agencies in central New York.

"I am very happy to be given the opportunity to direct Unity House’s mental health residential programs and to work on growth and quality programming,” said Judi. “My goals are to ensure that program participants are satisfied with the services they are receiving, and that our staff feel valued and appreciated. It’s important for people to hear they are doing a good job."


UNITY HOUSE RECEIVES COVID GRANT

Cayuga Community Fund awards $700

Auburn, New York – Unity House of Cayuga County, Inc. has been awarded a $700 grant from the Cayuga Community Fund. This year’s grant round was conducted in collaboration with the United Way of Cayuga County, and specifically targeted COVID-related needs of local non-profits.

The funds will be used to purchase $20 pre-paid phone cards for use in Unity House’s PROSperity and Grace House programs. These two programs serve individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders. This population is particularly adversely affected by the isolation and social distancing required due to coronavirus. Being alone and unable to access recovery resources in person increases anxiety; staying connected literally keeps them alive.

The pre-paid phone cards will enable clients to participate in Zoom check-in calls, telehealth meetings with practitioners, video calls with medical staff, and online classes. PROS now offers about 23 remote classes a week for its service recipients, including such topics as Anxiety & Depression, Emotional Eating, Anger Management, The Art of Recovery, and yoga and book club.


UNITY HOUSE ANNOUNCES 2020 AWARD WINNERS

9th annual OPEN ARMS AWARD: Lt. Michael Wellauer of the Cayuga County Sheriff’s Department. Lt. Wellauer was nominated by Unity House employee Alyssa Militello. He was selected from nine nominees by a staff committee for his patience, kindness and compassion to our individuals, and for his time and efforts spent with them to understand how 9-1-1 works, giving them tools to de-escalate stressful situations, and develop more constructive coping skills.

10th annual ATKINS COMMUNITY SERVICE AWARD: Timothy Donovan of Auburn is a lifelong resident, and volunteers with a wide range of non-profit organizations, including Unity House, homeless shelters, food pantries, and more. Tim is a former Unity House service recipient, and has made it his life’s work to now give back to all the agencies in town who helped him in his recovery. He gives from his heart in helping Unity House, the mental health and recovery populations, and much more.

Unity House was to honor these outstanding community members at its annual board / award dinner on Monday, April 27. Sadly, the event has been cancelled due to coronavirus. We will gather next April 2021 to celebrate these two worthy individuals and two more 2021 awardees.


UNITY HOUSE WELCOMES NEW DIRECTOR

Ryan Morrell Joins Agency To Lead Mental Health Program

Auburn, New York – Unity House’s Chief Operating Officer Darlene Podolak has announced that a new director has joined the agency’s staff. Ryan Morrell, director of the PROSperity mental health program, began his new duties in October.

“I am looking forward to working with Ryan at PROS and Peer Empowerment Services,” said Darlene. “He brings experience in the field and a commitment to his local community that will provide leadership and growth to the services we offer.”

In his new role, Ryan Morrell is responsible for direct oversight of six staff and monitoring of all operations for the agency’s Personalized Recovery Oriented Services (PROS) program, located at 146 North Street, Auburn, NY. Ryan holds a B.A. in Psychology and Biology from SUNY Cortland, and an M.S. in Mental Health Counseling from SUNY Oswego. He was most recently the Director of Criminal & Family Court Programs at Cayuga Counseling Services, Inc.

“I have been watching Unity House grow exponentially over the past 10 years and am proud to help it continue in this direction,” said Ryan. “Over the years, I have collaborated with Unity House staff on multiple occasions and always been impressed. The staff and participants at PROS have been receptive to the adjustment, and I am looking forward to providing the agency 100% of my time and effort to further the mission of enriching and empowering the lives of those in our community.”


UNITY HOUSE WELCOMES NEW BOARD MEMBER DAVID C. WILDER

David C. Wilder, president of the St. Thérèse of Lisieux Foundation, has joined the agency’s board of directors. He began his new duties in August.

“David is engaged in this community and brings new insights to the board, especially in terms of fundraising and development,” said Liz. “He brings fresh eyes to our processes, and his experience on other boards will be in sync with ours. His expertise is most welcome as we continue to make progress on our strategic plan.”

David C. Wilder is the current president of Illinois-based St. Thérèse of Lisieux Foundation, a non-profit that fosters national programs to create and enhance what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of life” and a “civilization of love.” Mr. Wilder is the former managing director of Lumen Institute Inc. in New York City, an international organization providing highly personalized formation in character, faith and leadership for hundreds of Fortune 500 C-Level business executives and cultural leaders.

Wilder is a graduate of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship with degrees in political science and business administration. He has also worked in sales and sales management within the transportation industry, and is a sought-after operations and development consultant for non-profits. Wilder has been a past Board of Education member (Andover Regional / NJ) and currently sits on the board of Champions for Life Inc. in Auburn.

“It’s been said that service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth. Well, I am, in essence, paying rent to an area that really needs these services,” said David. “I am honored to serve on the Unity House board that ensures a stronger and more vibrant CNY community for all.”


UNITY HOUSE INVITES PUBLIC TO ANNUAL AWARD DINNER

Special evening takes place on April 29 at Auburn Holiday Inn

Auburn, New York – Unity House of Cayuga County, Inc. welcomes guests to attend its annual board and award dinner on Monday, April 29. The special event takes place at the Auburn Holiday Inn, 75 North Street, beginning at 5:30pm. Cost is $50 per person. The public is warmly invited to attend. RSVPs are due by April 22 at www.unityhouse.com/RSVP/boarddinner.asp or by calling 315-253-6227 x310.

There are three special components to the evening:

Guest speaker Kayla McKeon will tell her story: “Advocacy and My Journey to Becoming the Nation’s First Registered Lobbyist with Down Syndrome.” Kayla resides in Syracuse and travels to Washington D.C. frequently for work. She is a member of the National Down Syndrome Self Advocacy advisory board. Prior to joining the NDSS team as the manager of Grassroots Advocates, Kayla interned for Congressman John Katko (R-NY) of the 24th district. She attends Onondaga Community College, and is a Special Olympics athlete. Kayla is the 2016 recipient of the Self Advocate of the Year award, and was named to Syracuse’s Forty Under 40 in 2016.

The 9th annual Fred Atkins Community Service Award will be presented to Mr. Donald Poole of Auburn. Don was a corrections officer at the Auburn Prison for 28 years before becoming the superintendent of Fort Hill Cemetery for 25 years. Don also served two, 4-year terms on the Auburn City Council. Now retired, Don spends his time helping others. He is a past Grand Knight and former trustee of the local Knights of Columbus. He spent many years coaching for Babe Ruth Little League, Mt. Carmel baseball and basketball, Pop Warner football, and CYO basketball. In addition to about seven years as a volunteer for Matthew House, Don has also served on several boards over the decades, including the Booker T. Washington Center, Neighborhood House, Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), Pop Warner, United Way fundraising campaign, and Chapel House. He worked for Unity House briefly in the early 1990s.

The 8th annual Open Arms Award will be presented to Naomi Bernheim, owner of Cup O’ Jo Café in Ithaca Mall. Unity House’s Open Arms Award recognizes a community member or organization that truly welcomes the people with disabilities we serve, in public and/or at their place of business. The award winner demonstrates empathy and genuine delight when interacting with these individuals, helping them to gain a sense of place and inclusion within the community, a hallmark of Unity House’s work. The Open Arms Award exemplifies caring, compassion, and a commitment to recognizing ability, not disability.


UNITY HOUSE ANNOUNCES OPEN ARMS AWARD WINNER

Naomi Bernheim of Truxton to be honored at April 29 dinner

Auburn, New York – Unity House of Cayuga County, Inc. is pleased to announce its 8th annual Open Arms award winner, who will be honored at the agency’s annual board and award dinner on Monday, April 29 in Auburn.

The Open Arms Award committee has selected Ms. Naomi Bernheim of Truxton, owner of Cup O’ Jo Café in Ithaca Mall, as its 8th annual awardee.

Naomi Bernheim was nominated by Fred Nichols, a quality assurance specialist at Unity House. Naomi has been the owner of Cup O’ Jo Café in the Ithaca Mall for three years, where many Unity House clients visit for good coffee, food and smoothies.

Unity House’s Open Arms Award recognizes a community member or organization that truly welcomes the people with disabilities we serve, in public and/or at their place of business. The award winner demonstrates empathy and genuine delight when interacting with these individuals, helping them to gain a sense of place and inclusion within the community, a hallmark of Unity House’s work. The Open Arms Award exemplifies caring, compassion, and a commitment to recognizing ability, not disability.

According to Fred, Naomi is “very accommodating and goes above and beyond to get to know our consumers. Her genuine kindness combined with the fact that she remembers our individuals’ names and what they order creates a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere which helps our service recipients feel important.”

Naomi has gotten to know two Unity House clients especially well. She begins making their regular selection as they walk in the door and before they even place their order. She also advises them on healthy food choices and assists with using the credit card machine to make their purchase.

“I have always been a service person,” said Naomi. “I worked here at the café for three years before the owner wanted to sell, so I decided to buy it. I love to make people happy; for me, it’s all about the friendships and making those customer connections. It makes my day to come in here and see ‘my people’.”

Unity House’s annual dinner takes place at the Holiday Inn, 75 North Street, Auburn beginning at 5:30pm. Cost is $50 per person. Guest speaker will be Kayla McKeon of Syracuse, the nation’s first registered lobbyist with Down syndrome. The public is warmly invited to attend. RSVPs are due by April 22 at www.unityhouse.com/RSVP/boarddinner.asp or by calling 315-253-6227 x310.