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AUBURN — It all started in the Case Mansion on 108 South St. in Auburn.

It was 1972. With 24 beds for male veterans experiencing emotional difficulties, Unity House of Cayuga County, through the First Presbyterian Church, began its work in the community.

The organization received its Articles of Incorporation on March 28, 1977, and four decades later, it's serving approximately 700 individuals with developmental, psychiatric and substance abuse disabilities per day. Though Unity House started more as a housing provider, that mission has evolved into providing employment, community engagement, respite care and rehabilitation assistance.

"When people think about Unity House, they just think about it as this nonprofit that serves people with disabilities, and that is who we are and what we do, but I think our impact on what we do is so far-reaching," Executive Director Liz Smith said. 

Having served countless individuals over the last four decades, and with a current staff of about 430 covering six central New York counties, Unity House has a lot to celebrate. The organization will hold multiple anniversary events this spring and summer, beginning with a 40th Birthday Party Thursday, March 23, at the Case Mansion. 

The organization will also hold its annual Gala Board and Award Dinner in April, where Kathy Cronkite, writer, journalist and daughter of renowned journalist Walter Cronkite, will be the special guest speaker. Kelly Buck, director of marketing and development, said the gala will be larger than in past years, and she's excited for Cronkite to speak.

"(Cronkite) had clinical depression all her adult life," Buck said. "She's going to be able to speak to that and just mental wellness as a whole."

With other birthday events scheduled, too, there's a lot to look forward to while looking back.

For Smith, who has been at the organization for 22 years, it's hard to believe just how much Unity House has changed over the last couple of decades. After earning nonprofit status in 1977, a decade later Unity House opened mental health-certified apartments in Auburn. By 1988, Unity Employment Services opened, and soon after, Smith joined the organization as its first job coach. 

By 1995, Unity House began serving those with substance dependency issues by opening GRACE House, a residence and supportive living facility. And in 1997, the organization opened its doors to people in Ithaca — which means its 20th birthday in Tompkins County concurs with its 40th in Cayuga. Between 1997 and 2000, Smith said, the organization doubled in size. 

Cuomo: $20 million investment will transform former Auburn school into affordable housing

While its second home is in Ithaca, through its work Unity House has touched Wayne, Onondaga, Seneca and Ontario counties, too, and its reach continues to grow. Smith said the organization is in the process of a second significant growth spurt, and one of the projects ushering that along is its expansion to the former West Middle School on Genesee Street in Auburn. Partnering with Two Plus Four Management of Syracuse, Unity House will take on 20 one-bedroom apartments for people with psychiatric disabilities.

The affordable housing units' leases will be in those individuals' names, but Unity House will help them with a rental stipend, money management and case management activities. Besides the apartments, Smith said, some of Unity House's office space will transfer to the school, as well. She said human resources, maintenance, finance, marketing and development and other administrative figures will move from their current home on 34 Wright Avenue to space in the school that could not be utilized for apartments.

"We're just bursting at the seams here," Smith said. "When we moved in (to 34 Wright Ave.) we had five vacant offices, and now they're all full, and we're taking over conference rooms."

Unity House plans to move into the former school in February. Smith said it's a win not only for the organization but for the community, putting the school that has been empty for the last five years back on the tax rolls. More affordable housing is also needed throughout the community, she added.

While that's the last major milestone highlighted on the history of Unity House's timeline, Smith and Chief Operating Officer Darlene Podolak said there's a shift and evolution of internal programming always happening. For example, Podolak said Unity House's Day Hab program has transformed to include community integration. 

"Whether it's taking somebody for a haircut, or out grocery shopping, or out to the fish hatchery, or bowling or the YMCA — although they're enjoyable activities, the undercurrent is really to help the people that we're serving to connect people to the community and really become friends without us there," Podolak said. 

Day Hab operates seven days a week and involves about 200 people in the central New York region. In Auburn, Podolak said, between 65 and 75 people participate. It's particularly poignant for Podolak seeing the transformation. She's going on her 25th year at Unity House. She did not even start as full-time staff, she said. She was relief staff, filling in when needed. At first, it was just a job, fitting in with her college degree track. But Podolak began to cry as she said how much "just a job" turned into so much more.

"I think people always say if you find a job that you love it's never work," Podolak said, wiping tears from her eyes. "I think that's true. Both the people that we support and the people that support them really have made my job a job that I enjoy doing. So, you know, I think that's why I'm here, and I can tell you, it has not felt like 25 years."

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Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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