Youth from 13 schools across southern Kentucky were introduced to concepts and strategies to make it easier to be drug free during the first part of Operation UNITE’s new Youth Leadership Program on Tuesday, September 28.

Approximately 288 students from six counties participated in the training at Memorial Gym in Hazard. These same students will return for the final part of the program on October 26.

The regional workshops are designed to train middle and high school youth to be catalysts for helping their peers make positive life choices by demonstrating leadership skills within their home communities. After completing the program students will be engaged in activities that foster personal growth, decision-making and environmental change.

To view photos from the program click here.

Conducted by Youth To Youth International, the objective is for participants to learn and practice the qualities and skills of great leaders, to be empowered to make good choices in life, and to develop strategies for making a positive impact among their peers in school and in their communities.

During the first part of the training students were engaged in discussions about their concept of leadership, the qualities and skills of great leaders, how to identify what it means to be “cool” and how they are being exploited by this concept, how to avoid burnout, and tips to continue making an impact.

“It’s easy for youth to feel safe and secure in their own little world,” said Ty Sells, director of training for Youth To Youth International. “Unfortunately, in trying to be ‘cool’ they may place themselves into bad situations – what’s cool is not always what’s best. We can be made to think something really matters when it doesn’t matter at all.”

“It’s not so much about the facts and figures … it’s the way you treat each other,” Sells told the students. “You are different than anybody else, and that’s OK. The problem isn’t that we have differences, it’s that we have the inability to accept those differences.”

Sells explained that people can be trained, tricked and made to do things they don’t really believe in. It takes real courage, however, to stand up for what is right.

The secret to leadership, Sells noted, is to “demonstrate behavior you want to see.”

Knowledge, he added, isn’t power “until we put it into practice,” Sells added. “Often we have leaders right here among us that we don’t even realize. Ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things.”

Founded in 1982 in Columbus, Ohio, Youth To Youth International is a model community-based drug prevention and youth leadership program. Its many projects are aimed at harnessing the powerful influence of peer pressure, making it a positive force that encourages young people to live free of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.

Attending Tuesday’s program were students from Adams Middle, Allen Central, Arlie Boggs, Beaver Creek, Breathitt County High, Buckhorn Middle, Carr Creek, East Ridge High, Emmalena, Knott Central, Millard Middle, Shelby Valley High and Whitesburg Middle.

Approximately 300 students representing UNITE Clubs at 20 schools in the Big Sandy Region completed the program in March. There were 250 students at the Cumberland region program on September 27 in London and will complete the training on October 25.

The UNITE Youth Leadership Program is being funded through a grant from the Walmart Foundation and the Kentucky Advisory Council State Giving Program.