A night of gratitude and hope: Unity House celebrates 47 years at annual dinner

Dr. Tatiana Parker (center) from NYS Senator Rachel May’s office was present on Monday evening to present two award proclamations to this year’s award winners, Elaine Meyers (left) and Joe Goodsell (right).

More than 150 Unity House supporters gathered Monday to celebrate people who bring hope to people with disabilities.

“When you’re in the middle of full-on desperation, it’s hard to see any hope beyond that,” Charlie Mills told attendees at Unity House’s Annual Board and Award Dinner. “It just takes a couple people, seeing that spark in you, whatever it may be.”

Charlie was the keynote speaker at the event, held this year at the Hilton Garden Inn, Auburn. He shared his story, how he became addicted to drugs in his teens and went through numerous treatment programs before he came to Unity House’s GRACE House. As part of the program, he did volunteer work at Auburn Public Theater. All they needed was somebody to paint the walls, they told him.

CEO Liz Smith hugs outgoing Unity House board member Christina Van Ditto, who was recognized for her dedicated service.

“I didn’t realize that I was walking into a family that I was going to cherish for all these years,” said Charlie, who now runs his own construction and landscaping company. “I came into this process broken, with nothing, hopeless, and they gave me a family, and they loved me… They wanted me to be better because they saw something in me. And I’m so grateful for that.”

A highlight of the annual dinner was the presentation of the 13th annual Open Arms Award and the 14th annual Fred Atkins Community Service Award.

A committee of Unity House employees selected author Elaine Meyers of Aurora as this year’s Open Arms Award winner. The author and former librarian volunteers through Unity House’s PROSperity program, which helps people overcome mental illness. A lifelong lover of literature, Elaine has been teaching writing classes at PROS.

Guest speaker Charlie Mills, a local Cayuga County contractor and businessman, tells his story of addiction recovery.

“I have learned more than I have taught, and I count our class time as the richest hour in my entire week,” Elaine told attendees at the dinner. “When many unique voices, visions and stories are respectfully shared, a community is created.”

A volunteer committee selected Joe Goodsell of Auburn as this year’s Atkins Community Service Award winner. He’s a long-time volunteer for both Matthew House and Cayuga County Meals on Wheels.

The award comes with a $1,000 prize. Joe directed $500 of the prize to go to Matthew House and $250 to Cayuga County Meals on Wheels. He plans to use the rest to cover fuel costs so he can continue his weekly work of delivering meals to those in need.

Unity House CEO Liz Smith said the organization overcame many obstacles in 2023. In spite of an ongoing staffing shortage, Unity House was able to expand its programming in some areas. She said she was especially proud that Unity House expanded its capacity to help mothers who are recovering from addiction.

The successes of 2023 bode well for 2024 and beyond, she said.

“We are focusing on the future,” Liz said. “And dare I say, we’re starting to dream just a little bit.”

Unity House would like to thank our many sponsors who made the annual dinner possible.

For a full gallery of photos, click here.