PRESTONSBURG – Operation UNITE’s Service Corps program received recognition for its excellent leadership and service during its end-of-year celebration held May 23.

“Because of your demonstration of integrity and ability, meriting our great trust and respect, we are most pleased to award (UNITE) this Governor’s Citation in sincere appreciation of your outstanding services to the Commonwealth of Kentucky and its citizens,” stated the citation, signed by Gov. Steve Beshear and Audrey Tayse Haynes, secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services.

Making the presentation was Eileen Cackowski, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Community Volunteerism and Service (KCCVS) in the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

“You have the trust of the commonwealth,” Cackowski said. “You have proven yourself to be so incredibly good.”

This is the second time in as many years that UNITE received this recognition – “a walk on water” accomplishment, Cackowski proclaimed, noting a recipient must be nominated based upon outstanding volunteer service to communities.

“UNITE has always done a tremendous job,” Cackowski said. “These UNITE members have a difficult task (because of home situations and the impact of drugs). I just think this program has done an incredible job.”

“The credit of getting the governor’s citation has to go to our members. They are the ones in the schools and who are making the difference,” said Eugene Newsome, coordinator of the UNITE Service Corps. “I am very proud of what they have done.”

“You may not realize it, but the best part of the kids’ day is the time they get to spend with you,” Phillip Birchfield, principal of Mullins Elementary, told the AmeriCorps members during his keynote presentation. “In your job you don’t always get to see the end result, but you are making an impact.”

Birchfield, who oversees the second largest school in Pike County, noted that a vast majority of students come from economically disadvantaged or drug-impacted homes – two students had parents who died from substance abuse this past year.

Despite these obstacles, “never feel sorry for them,” Birchfield stressed. “Build that relationship … with that child (and) educate them so they see a better life. That’s what you’re all about.”

UNITE employed 28 full-time AmeriCorps members as part of its UNITE Service Corps initiative during the 2011-12 school year.

These members taught the “Too Good for Drugs” and “Take 10” health curriculum, tutored students in mathematics, and helped establish or coordinate existing anti-drug UNITE Clubs at 35 elementary schools in 11 Eastern Kentucky counties. In addition, they provide hundreds of hours of community service.

This school year took the community service component to a new level, as members actively assisted emergency management officials in relief efforts following the March 2 tornado outbreak.

“Community service is an important part of the Service Corps philosophy, but the night the tornado hit our members were calling me at home to find out what they could do to help,” Newsome commented. “We had members who were in search and rescue in Johnson and Magoffin counties, members that staffed the shelters, members who were assisting in food and clothing distribution, and some members who spent days assisting the National Guard loading and unloading supplies.”

“It was amazing to see how they responded to help the communities that were hit,” Newsome added. “They stepped outside the scope of their traditional AmeriCorps duties.”

Special guests attending the celebration luncheon, held at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg, were KCCVS Program Officer Andrea Sieloff, KCCVS Disabilities Coordinator Lanny Taulbee, KCCVS Administrative Assistant Linda Harney, and Pike County Safe and Drug Free Schools Director Marionette Little.

This was the fourth year Operation UNITE has received funding for the initiative through a grant awarded by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCP).

The CNCP improves lives, strengthens communities, and fosters civic engagement through service and volunteering. As the nation’s largest grant maker in support of service and volunteering, CNCS engages more than five million Americans of all ages and backgrounds in service to their communities each year.

In exchange for a year of full-time service, members earn a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award that can be used to pay for college or graduate school, or to pay back qualified student loans.