Thousands of struggling Eastern Kentucky families will have their holiday tables brightened thanks to the generosity of their neighbors.

Food drives conducted by UNITE Service Corps (AmeriCorps) members at dozens of schools across the region have so far netted nearly 9 tons of non-perishable items that will be distributed within their local communities.

And this number is expected to increase.

“Some schools don’t even hold their food drives until November or December,” said Eugene Newsome, director of the UNITE Service Corps initiative. “When all the food drives have concluded I fully expect we will exceed the 10.3 tons of food brought in last year, which was the highest total in our Service Corps history.”

In addition, Newsome added, several Service Corps members are organizing fundraisers to purchase turkeys, hams and even complete holiday meal baskets that will not be included in the final numbers reported to the Kentucky Commission on Community and Volunteer Service (KCCVS), which oversees AmeriCorps programs in the state.

Newsome was notified Wednesday, Nov. 6, that UNITE’s Service Corps finished third among school-based programs in a statewide competition conducted by the KCCVS – a one-step increase from last year.

Through the end of October, when the contest period ended, UNITE’s Service Corps had collected 286,734 ounces (8.96 tons) of food – an average of 6,516.68 ounces per member.

“Based on the KCCVS 8-ounce serving portion, that is enough food to feed 35,842 people as a result of this food drive,” Newsome said. “Since then, I’d say I have received at least another ton of food. The outpouring of support from residents of southern and eastern Kentucky is just incredible.”

All of the food is donated to Family Resource and Youth Service Centers, community charitable groups and/or church pantries within the communities where the food was collected.

In total, Kentucky AmeriCorps programs collected 44.93 tons of food in their local communities for individuals and families in need – enough to feed 179,737 people.

For the third consecutive year, Morehead State University’s MSUCorps captured first place in the school-based category, collecting 12,787.53 ounces per member.

While the numbers are impressive, Newsome said there is a more important lesson to be learned from the annual food drives.

“I’m not as much concerned about the totals as I am about teaching our children to give back to their communities,” Newsome stated. “Inspiring and encouraging individuals to participate in community service projects is the main goal. The type of service doesn’t matter. What is important is the giving of your time, talents and resources to make a difference in the lives of others.”

UNITE employs 44 full-time AmeriCorps members for the 2013-14 school year as part of its UNITE Service Corps (USC) initiative. These members serve 42 schools in 11 counties providing math tutoring and drug abuse prevention education, sponsor anti-drug UNITE Clubs, and recruit volunteers for school-based prevention programs.