More than 6,500 students from 136 schools in 29 counties attended one of three Operation UNITE’s “Piercing the Darkness of Drugs” Youth Summit held September 15-17, 2009, in Hazard, Somerset and Prestonsburg.

The summits featured exciting and motivational programs for youth in grades 4-12, followed by an assembly program where regional UNITE Club of the Year winners were announced.

UNITE also presented special recognition awards for support of Operation UNITE’s youth initiatives.

There were 1,810 students and 145 adults from 34 schools from 11 counties at the Sept. 15 summit held at both the Hal Rogers Forum and Perry Central High School in Hazard; 2,056 students and 200 adults from 41 schools from 11 counties attended the Sept. 16 summit at The Center for Rural Development in Somerset; and 2,646 students and 238 adults from 61 schools from 13 counties participated in the Sept. 17 summit at both The Mountain Arts Center and Prestonsburg High School in Prestonsburg.

“We are ecstatic about the support from schools across southern and eastern Kentucky for these summits,” Engle said. “This is more than three times the number of youth we anticipated. I think that is a reflection on the need for positive programs and a recognition that changing attitudes and behaviors toward drugs begins with our youth.”

Receiving the special recognition awards were:

• Tammi Gorman, for her caring and concern for the youth of Perry County and for her tireless efforts in support of Operation UNITE.

“Tammi is an outstanding volunteer and a champion for youth. Whenever anything needs done in Perry, Leslie, Knott or Letcher counties we can count on her assistance,” said Karen Engle, director of UNITE. “Most recently she recruited and arranged transportation for youth attending Camp UNITE. She always gives from her heart to improve the lives of those in her community.”

• The Kentucky National Guard, for their invaluable support of Camp UNITE and other youth initiatives throughout Kentucky.

“One of the main reasons Camp UNITE has been such a successful event is the cooperation and participation from the National Guard units,” Engle said. “Anytime we have requested their assistance – especially when it involves youth — they have come through. Currently we are working to establish an even closer partnership.”

• Marionette Little, for her caring and concern for the youth of Pike County and for her tireless efforts in support of Operation UNITE.

“Marionette’s life has centered around children. She is always one of the first to volunteer and solicit involvement from Pike County schools,” Engle noted. “Camp UNITE would not have happened without her assistance in 2007. She continues to be a strong supporter, recruiting participants and making sure everyone who wants to go has transportation.”

Honored as UNITE Clubs of the Year from the Kentucky River region were: Carr Creek Elementary (Knott County), Whitesburg Middle School (Letcher County) and Wolfe County High.

Honored as UNITE Clubs of the Year from the Cumberland region were: Mt. Vernon Elementary (Rockcastle County), Rockcastle County Middle and Rockcastle County High.

Honored as UNITE Clubs of the Year from the Big Sandy region were: Clearfield Elementary (Rowan County), Millard Middle (Pike County) and Sheldon Clark High FCA (Martin County).

In addition, at each summit two MP3 players donated by Walmart were given away. Winners of the players were: Jodie Canada, Williamsburg Independent; Derrick Charles, Leatherwood Elementary; Kiara Compton, Allen Central High; Kim Neace, Buckhorn High; Shawn Pack, Morgan Central; and Josey Swiney, Northern Middle.

Students attending the summits were treated to an exciting, motivational program filled with positive messages about avoiding peer pressure, becoming leaders in educating classmates and their community about the dangers of drugs, and making positive personal choices.

“Our goal is to empower these students to make drug-free choices in their life,” Engle stated. “In turn, their choices will hopefully influence other family members, their friends, and all those with whom they have contact.”

The primary sponsor for the Youth Summits is EQT Corporation (formerly Equitable Resources, Inc.) which provided a $20,000 grant to make the events possible. Other sponsors include Walmart of Prestonsburg, Flowers Bakery of London, Kentucky National Guard, East Kentucky Beverage Company of Pikeville, Pepsi Cola Bottling of Somerset, Little Caesar’s pizza (Somerset, Hazard and Prestonsburg), the City of Hazard, and the Mountain Arts Center of Prestonsburg.

“Of course, these summits could not occur without dozens of volunteers from throughout the region,” Engle said. “We have 118 volunteers from health departments, school systems, colleges, local UNITE coalitions, businesses, churches, municipal and county governments, social service agencies and local law enforcement agencies supporting the program.”

Special programs were presented by the Lexington-based Remix Education Entertainment and motivational speaker and comedian Matt Bellace from Youth-to-Youth International.

Remix’s high-energy, interactive program targeted to the younger students used hilarious mascot skits, crazy stunts, interactive games and motivational speaking to inform youth about the dangers of drugs as well as how to stand up to peer pressure.

Bellace encouraged older students to pursue “natural highs,” make healthy choices, and learn how to become effective leaders. His presentation demonstrated that there are positive things they can do for themselves and others that will make a lasting difference.

UNITE used the summits to roll out information for the 2009-10 UNITE Clubs. Workshops for new and returning club sponsors provided details on using innovative programs that will energize students and make a positive impact within their school and community.

Each school with a registered UNITE Club can request up to $750 to be used for drug education, mentoring or community service projects during the current school year. In addition, all club members will receive a T-shirt bearing this year’s “Piercing the Darkness of Drugs” theme.

This is the second year UNITE has hosted regional Youth Summits. In August 2007 there were 1,500 students from 89 schools in 24 counties at events held in Somerset and Prestonsburg.

“A one-day event will not, in and of itself, magically solve the deep-rooted problems associated with substance abuse,” Engle noted. “These youth summits are intended to raise awareness of what is possible, and spark an excitement that will be taken back and shared within their schools and communities.”