CARBONDALE – Of all the organizations and groups that make up the community in Carbondale, none are quite so visible or quite so busy as UNICO.
UNICO as a whole found its beginnings in Connecticut in 1922. The mission was to have an Italian American organization that could provide their service to charitable causes, support students pursuing higher education, a perform patriotic deeds.
UNICO is the largest Italian-American service organization in the United States.
Unico in Italian means “unique,” but the acronym also stands for unity, neighborliness, integrity, charity and opportunity.
The Carbondale chapter of UNICO has embraced this mission statement since they were chartered May 12, 1959 with 48 members. Now, thanks to increased interest in recent years, the group has grown to 63 members.
“The numbers have varied over the years but I'm thinking we have the largest amount [of members] the chapter has ever had,” said Yvonne Gatto, Carbondale UNICO President.
Members span from Carbondale and its surrounding towns, but what's surprising is just how far the membership really reaches. Gatto stated that they have members in Clarks Summit and Nicholson.
What all these members do in the organization is what makes the most difference.
“Our motto is 'service above self',” said Gatto.
The Carbondale Chapter has benefited a number of organizations within Carbondale itself, from the YMCA and library to the historical society and the Shade Tree Commission.
UNICO was responsible for raising the money for the initial YMCA building fund. They've also contributed to Catholic Social Services, St Francis of Assisi Kitchen, the Gino Merli Center and Equines for Freedom.
They also, along with UNICO National, support causes for cancer research such as Cooley's Anemia Foundation and the Jimmy V Foundation.
One yearly staple for the Carbondale UNICO is presenting two $1000 scholarships for high school seniors at Carbondale Area's Class Night. Eligible students are blindly selected by a committee who look at such qualifications as their service to their community, grades, family need and essay response.
The next major annual event will be during Pioneer Nights, where UNICO runs their famous pizza stand. The money raised from the pizza stand in turn goes to serve several charitable organizations.
It's not just scholarships and donations to organizations. UNICO also looks to help individuals.
“We often times will give out money to individuals who are in need,” said Gatto. “Perhaps they have a life changing illness, perhaps a fire or some event that caused them a hardship. If it becomes known to us, membership votes on sending them money to try and help ease their hardship.”
Another service idea this year came in the form of a free pizza party in Carbondale's high rises.
“We also wanted to do something for senior citizens, so we sponsored a pizza party for the people living in the high rises in Carbondale,” said Mary Lynn Brannon. “We had a lot of fun with that.”
The free pizza party concept provided an outreach to area elderly and an opportunity for UNICO members to talk about what their organization was all about. They also received something in return.
Some of those seniors staying in the Ben Franklin Apartments had been students in that same building when it was the Benjamin Franklin High School. The high school closed in 1976 when the current Carbondale Junior-Senior High School was constructed.
These people regaled the UNICO members with stories of their youth, and talked about where the typing and band classes took place.
“The seniors loved it. We didn't know what to expect at the time because this was the first time we did this particular event,” said Gatto. “It was wonderful to get quite a few history lessons from Carbondale because the seniors would tell us stories of what went on.”
Brannon also explained that when the members do these sorts of events, they use local restaurants. For the pizza party, they used three local pizza restaurants. The organization also conducts their meetings at different restaurants in Carbondale, to support local businesses.
This year the chapter needs to decide how they will spend their Day of Service. In the past, they've cleaned up the Mount Carmel Cemetery, volunteered at St Francis of Assisi kitchen in Scranton and cleaned the Memorial and West Side Parks in Carbondale.
There will be other events to look out for. The fourth annual Ladies Day Out will happen in November. The event takes place at the Carbondale Grand Hotel and features a lot of vendors, just in time for a Christmas shopping extravaganza.
Dates for UNICO events will be announced as they come closer.
Benefits of joining UNICO, besides the joy of service to one's community, also includes celebrations, marching in the Columbus Day Parade in New York and Italian classes – all exclusive to UNICO members.
“But the key to all of it is we have the best time doing it,” said Gatto. “We have the best people in our organization. We know how to work together and enjoy every moment of it.”
Anyone interested in joining the Carbondale chapter of UNICO can contact any UNICO member, Jerry Arnese – Chair of Membership and Retention, President Yvonne Gatto or go through the national UNICO website who will direct local people to Gatto.
Interested members also join by attending a meeting. There's always an application available, and the membership will decide to vote in the new person.
The only requirement is to be of Italian descent, or married to someone who is.
According to Brannon, college students do not have to pay the same dues as the older members, as the organization will cover them until age 26.