PAINTSVILLE – Operation UNITE’s Service Corps initiative sets an example of success that should be replicated across America, according to the head of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

“We need to share this as a model to other rural counties across the country,” said Wendy Spencer, executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based organization that directs the AmeriCorps initiative. “This is really a regional way to address the problems. We need to get this story told.”

Spencer’s comments came during a roundtable discussion with UNITE officials held at Highland Elementary School in Johnson County Monday, Oct. 29.

“Schools in the past didn’t have to deal with these systemic problems (outside the classroom). We believe you are the implementation tool; the difference between what the principal and teachers can do,” Spencer said. “You’re giving these kids hope. We’re glad to be your partner.”

“The biggest problem was not the pushers, or the treatment, but the … kids,” commented Fifth District Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, who created Operation UNITE in 2003 to address the region’s prescription drug epidemic.

“More kids were removed from homes in Johnson County in the past year than any other county in the state,” said Karen Kelly, director of UNITE, citing stats from the Department of Community-Based Services. “Drugs account for 94 percent of these removals.”

“These kids need somebody,” Kelly said. “That’s why the UNITE Service Corps initiative is so important.”

“It’s been a great difference maker in our schools,” commented Steve Whitaker, assistant superintendent of the Johnson County School System. “Drugs are in the homes. This is another way to help that situation. (AmeriCorps allows students) to have an understanding about drugs and to have someone to talk to when they see something happening.”

“There are so many advantages to having these people here,” agreed Highland Principal Thom Cochran. “It’s amazing how many kids have no positive role models outside of the school. We have them for six and a half hours. You don’t know what they go home to.”

From 2004 through 2010 UNITE provided funding for in-school substance abuse counselors to provide anti-drug education and intervention services for youth and their families. At its peak, 35 counselors served 44 school systems.

“This initiative was really having a positive impact,” Kelly said. “Unfortunately, this effort became a victim of cuts in federal funding.”

“The AmeriCorps program has replenished the supply of good people to go into the schools,” Rogers told CNCS’s Spencer. “You are a life saver.”

UNITE currently employs 44 full-time AmeriCorps members in 11 counties through its UNITE Service Corps.

Service Corps members teach the “Too Good for Drugs” and “Healthy Futures/Take 10” wellness curriculums, provide tutoring in math – with a resulting 36 percent increase in test scores for students served during the 2011-12 school year – coordinate anti-drug UNITE Clubs at each location, recruit volunteers for school prevention activities, and provide thousands of hours of volunteer service annually.

For the past two year the UNITE Service Corps initiative has been honored with the “Governor’s Citation” for its excellent leadership and service by the Kentucky Commission on Community Volunteerism and Service (KCCVS).

“The UNITE Service Corps holds a special place in my heart,” commented KCCVS Executive Director Eileen Cackowski.

Several current and former AmeriCorps members spoke about the program’s value.

“It opened my eyes to see what students go through, not just here at school but in their home life,” said former member Ashley Conley. “You get to teach them, advocate for them, and be there for them.”

Eugene Newsome, Service Corps manager, noted that 4,751 disadvantaged youth were served between 2010-12. Of these, 862 youth had at least one parent incarcerated.

“The word ‘UNITE’ is associated with ‘help’,” noted Amy Chapman, a Service Corps member serving Central Elementary.

Anna Burton, a Service Corps member at Meade Elementary, noted that the lessons taught with the “Too Good For Drugs” curriculum proved invaluable to the school’s Future Problem Solving team, which placed in international competition. “These kids had to use what we taught them and apply them” in their presentation, she said.

Former member George Salyers stressed the value of the community service component, noting the outpouring of support in the wake of the March tornadoes.

Over the past two years, Service Corps members have recruited 2,169 volunteers who provided 17,621 volunteer hours to their communities.

“You apply your skills that you learned in college every day,” said former member Tiffany Doderer, noting that experience helped her land a job in the classroom.

Earlier in the day, the school’s K-6 students were treated to an anti-drug program by Remix Education Entertainment.

“When you get tempted by a so-called friend (to use drugs) I want you to say, ‘Thank you, but I’m not interested’,” Rogers told the youth. “You can be whatever you want to be, but you gotta be drug-free.”