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All about John Baackes

John Baackes will receive Unity House’s Founders Award at our signature Fall event

It’s 1971. Imagine you move to Troy, NY and become a communicant of Christ Sun of Justice and you ask as to where you might do some volunteering. That’s how John Baackes first got involved with Unity House.

John describes first meeting Mary Jane Smith, then a Sister of Saint Joseph, in a dirty stairwell. She was standing outside on the basement stairs on the sidewalk at 309 8th Street, a building that was practically gifted to Mary Jane Smith, Peter Callaghan and Regis Obijiski, the trio who founded Unity House. The site became the base for their fledgling organization in the low-income neighborhood they called home.

John Baackes and then-Sister Mary Jane Smith

Mary Jane put John to work immediately, asking him to shovel out the accumulated trash so they could access the door at the base of the stairs. John did as asked, and so much more. That day of shoveling out a stairwell turned in to more than 50 years of friendship, service, and support.

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John Baackes has done so much for Unity House, especially in the early days, when resources were scarce and Unity House was a grassroots group. John helped clean up 8th Street, he designed publications for Unity House, and he put in countless hours doing what needed doing. He helped promote services for people in need, and he brought in talent who were as passionate as he was about the mission of Unity House. He and his former wife, the late Kathryn Allen, became steadfast supporters.

John is not a professional artist, but you wouldn’t know it judging by the artwork he created for Unity House over the years. He designed brochures, invitations, and most important, the first logo, which has become iconic. It seems only fitting that John stepped up again to incorporate his design in a new logo to mark the 50th anniversary of Unity House.

50 years later, John, left, with Regis Obijiski, a founder of Unity House

From three founders – Mary Jane Smith, Regis Obijiski, and Peter Callaghan- and a handful of volunteers, Unity House has grown to over 400 employees, with an annual budget of around $30 million. All the services, programs, and partnerships of today hark back to those early days and what people said they needed: help with life’s essentials such as food, housing, jobs, childcare, safety, and care.

As for that building on 8th Street? It’s still in use and was key at the start of the pandemic when Unity House had to quickly alter service delivery to create safer spaces. Today the building is being remodeled to serve as a residence. The exterior basement stairwell is long gone, yet there is plenty of routine cleaning needed. Fortunately, there are people like John Baackes to step up and pitch in. We are grateful to John Baackes for his support, his expertise, and for his inspiring example of giving back.

Unity House is thrilled to present John Baackes with our Founders Award.

When he’s not doodling, you can find John Baackes in Los Angeles where he works in healthcare and volunteers since that nun on 8th Street and the founders of Unity House made a lasting impression. You can read more about John here.