PRESTONSBURG – “You give hope. You touch lives. And, you do that every year.”

That was the sentiment of long-time educator John Hale, principal at Somerset Christian School and chairman of the Rockcastle County UNITE Coalition, who praised the efforts and achievements of UNITE’s Service Corps during a year-end celebration held May 23 at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg.

“Education is a noble profession. You won’t get rich, but you will touch lives,” Hale said. “Children will meet our expectations.”

Hale said leadership requires setting the proper example: Respect others, be genuine, be kind and courteous, and display good ethics. “Take personal pride in doing a good job,” he said. “Give of yourself and the dividends are out of this world.”

Operation UNITE employed 44 full-time AmeriCorps members to serve schools in 11 school districts as part of its Service Corps initiative during the 2012-13 school year.

AmeriCorps members provide math tutoring, teach the “Too Good for Drugs” and “Healthy Futures/Take 10” wellness curriculums, and coordinate anti-drug UNITE Clubs. In addition, members provide thousands of hours of volunteer service and recruit volunteers for school prevention activities.

“I am humbled by what you do every day to help children make goals and keep them,” Eileen Cackowski, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Community Volunteerism and Service (which coordinates the AmeriCorps program statewide), told those attending the luncheon.

“I firmly believe the Service Corps program is one of UNITE’s crown jewels,” said Dan Smoot, president of UNITE. “It makes a difference in kids’ lives.”

Each participating school contributes $5,500 toward the salary of their AmeriCorps member. Upon completion of one or two years of service, members are eligible for a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award that can be used to pay back student loans or cover tuition costs.

“It’s a win-win,” said Ralph Kilgore, director of pupil personnel for the Pike County school system. “You’re making a difference – for the district, for the school, and especially for our children.”

Others attending the event included Andrea Sieloff, KCCVS program officer, and Marionette Little, Pike County Safe Schools/Drug Free Schools director.

“There have been many things to celebrate this past year,” said Eugene Newsome, who has coordinated the Service Corps program the past two years. “Our big challenge was the expansion to 44 members (from 28 members) because of additional funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service.”

This past fall, UNITE’s Service Corps received the “Governor’s Citation of Excellence” for service to citizens during the 2012 Make A Difference Day food drive.

More than 10.3 tons of food was collected – enough to feed 41,255 people in need an 8-ounce serving. This food was donated to Family Resource and Youth Service Centers, community charitable groups and/or church pantries in the communities where the food was collected.

Second-year member AnnDraia Bales, serving Hayes Lewis Elementary in Leslie County, was nominated for the Governor’s Volunteer Award. Aleisha Lewis, a first-year member serving Page School Center in Bell County, received Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers’ “Difference Maker Award” for work in her district.

In the wake of recent natural disasters, all UNITE Service Corps members received state certification in disaster preparedness and response so they would be ready to help their communities in case of an emergency.

The expansion also led to the addition of Nancy Hale as assistant Service Corps coordinator.

“This year we have really been hurt with a lot of personal tragedies within our schools,” Hale noted. “We can’t celebrate without remembering those people. Our members rallied in support of families, even if tragedy was at a different school.”

“You should never forget the real purpose of what we’re doing,” Hale said.

Although the final numbers aren’t yet available, through March 15 this year the UNITE Service Corps:

• Tutored 2,007 students in math. These students showed a growth of 35.1 percent in test scores.

• Recruited 1,442 volunteers who recorded 11,814 service hours for their schools.

• Served as sponsors for 55 UNITE Clubs that had 2,910 student members.

• Had 2,256 students participate in the Too Good For Drugs or Healthy Futures curriculum. Post-test scores indicate a 43.5 percent increase in healthy decisions and drug education knowledge.

• Served 3,682 disadvantaged children.

• Mentored 4,094 students