MT. VERNON – Operation UNITE formally unveiled its new “I Am UNITE” scholarship program Friday morning in Rockcastle County.

Students, parents, civic leaders, elected officials and business leaders packed the Rockcastle County High School gymnasium for the ceremony – one of many to be conducted in the next few weeks to award scholarships to 19 graduating seniors across southern and eastern Kentucky.

“Today, we are able to announce UNITE’s new scholarship program, because community leaders across the region want to help our students succeed,” said Fifth District Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers.

Funding for the scholarships, valued at $1,500 each, comes from the UNITE Foundation through private donations and proceeds from two National Rx Drug Abuse Summits.

To receive a scholarship and be named a UNITE Ambassador, students had to demonstrate: commitment to their school’s UNITE Club, personal contributions to his or her school and community, exemplify UNITE’s goals by living a drug-free lifestyle, and write an essay.

There were more than 40 applications for scholarships, said Karen Kelly, director of UNITE, noting many of these essays were so powerful they brought the scholarship selection committee to tears.

Receiving the “I Am UNITE” scholarships from Rockcastle County High were Hannah Eaton and Samantha Smoker – both of whom have had close family members impacted by prescription drugs.

“Helping with club sign-ups may not seem like much, but you never know what someone is going through,” Smoker wrote in her essay. “Being a family member of someone fighting drug addiction, I know how important it is to have a group of people stand behind you for support.”

“UNITE is more than a group of people,” she continued. “We’re a family within the community, and becoming part of UNITE makes the difference.”

Eaton, president of the school’s UNITE Club, was one of three RCHS students to attend this year’s Rx Summit.

“I was impressed by the confidence and tenacity (that Eaton, Sean Watkins and Avery Bradshaw) had to tell our national leaders that it’s time to take action and help families like (theirs), and thousands of students like you across southern and eastern Kentucky – and across the nation,” Rogers said.

“You are shining examples that one person can make a difference,” Rogers continued. “Your willingness to share your stories inspired hundreds of people across the country in a matter of days. In fact, Hannah, sean and Avery’s stories of courage and determination spurred the idea for the scholarships that we are able to deliver today.”

RCHS senior Ashton Arvin, a former Kentucky Youth Governor and “Hal Rogers wanna-be,” evoked laughter from the packed gymnasium as he introduced Congressman Rogers while wearing a white wig, glasses and the Congressman’s signature red tie.

During his presentation, Rogers lauded the Rockcastle County community as a whole for investing their time and resources toward fighting prescription drug abuse since the start of UNITE a decade ago.

“The real key to prevention is education and awarenesss, and having someone … to watch over you and look out for your future,” Rogers said.

In addition to the “I Am UNITE” scholarships, Bradshaw and Avery were awarded $5,000 scholarships through a UNITE Foundation donation by Ameritox, a company that provides physicians with drug monitoring and reporting services.

“We want to help prevent the human tragedy that can come out of drug abuse, misuse and diversion,” said Jim Sharples, senior director of marketing for Ameritox, adding the students’ stories “inspired our organization to try and do what we do even harder.”

This school year there were more than 9,500 student members of 118 UNITE Clubs in 26 counties – the largest number of participants since the initiative began in 2005.

“Ensuring that every person in every community understands the dangers posed by prescription drugs, and what to do when a loved one struggles with an addiction, is one of UNITE’s top priorities,” Kelly said. “UNITE believes that prevention, particularly among our youth, is the best way to reduce drug use and its deadly consequences.”

In addition, the Rockcastle County UNITE Coalition awarded $500 Holli Barnett Scholarships to Arvin and senior Hannah Bullock, a $1,000 anonymous scholarship and a $1,000 Rosa Foundation scholarship to Eaton.

“I have seen what education can do to prevent prescription drug abuse,” Kelly stated. “In the one hour we are here for this assembly we will have lost four people to drug-related overdoses.”