PRESTONSBURG – Members of Operation UNITE’s Service Corps (AmeriCorps) program were lauded for their exceptional work to keep youth on a drug-free path during an end-of-the-year celebration on Friday, May 23.

“The brilliance of the UNITE Service Corps is (that they are able) to take a proactive approach,” said Aaron Anderkin, who served as chairman of the Kentucky Commission on Community Volunteerism and Service (KCCVS) from 2010-12. “You help, not for recognition, but because you realize the urgency of the moment.”

KCCVS is responsible for coordinating the AmeriCorps program across Kentucky.

View photos from the year-end celebration.

“UNITE has been the catalyst in this region,” Anderkin stated. “They are able to activate the power of its greatest resource – it’s people.”

Anderkin, a 2003 graduate of Rockcastle County High School, was appointed in 2005 by then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher as KCCVS Youth Commissioner and was reappointed two more three-year terms to an at-large Commission seat by Gov. Steve Beshear. In addition to serving as chairman, he has spent the past seven years on the Commission’s Program Committee.

“Youth here have as much of an opportunity to live the American dream as anyone else in the country,” Anderkin told the Service Corps members, but noted the drug epidemic has been a big hurdle.

The work you do “is emotional,” Anderkin said. “I’ve seen some pretty dark clouds. Addiction cost my father his life. I truly learned what real empathy looked like.”

Operation UNITE employed 44 full-time AmeriCorps members to serve 42 schools in 11 counties as part of its Service Corps initiative during the 2013-14 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.

Although the final numbers are not yet available, this year UNITE Service Corps members have tutored approximately 2,800 students in math and taught drug resistant education to more than 2,500 fourth and fifth grade students.

Eugene Newsome, who oversees the UNITE Service Corps initiative, said mid-term reports indicate significant growth in the number of students being tutored in math and that 83.5 percent have improved at least 30 percent since the start of the year.

In addition, average drug education knowledge increased by 40 percentage points, Newsome said.

While the statistics are impressive, Anderkin said the most powerful messages are the testimonials about individual successes that are making a difference.

“The UNITE Service Corps is laying a foundation. We’re saving lives,” said Nancy Hale, co-program director. “We have to equip students with knowledge that they are in charge of their choices. Many of them, at the age of nine or ten, have already seen (the effects of substance abuse) first hand.”

“You may never know the impact you’re making in someone’s life,” Hale added.

Difference Makers

Five Service Corps members “who have given 110 percent to the students and schools they serve” were presented “Hal Rogers Difference Maker” awards during the celebration.

These awards, named for U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, recognize “the tireless efforts of people in southern and eastern Kentucky who go above and beyond the call of duty to make a life-changing impact in our region.”

Adam Rice, Prestonsburg field representative for Congressman Rogers, presented the awards to:

  • CaSondra Casey, Majestic Elementary in Pike County.
    CaSondra Casey, a second-year UNITE Service Corps (AmeriCorps) member at Majestic-Knox Creek Elementary School in Knox County was presented a “Hal Rogers Difference Maker” award from Adam Rice, field representative for U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers on May 23. During a holiday food drive at the school, Casey “learned that many of (the students) did not have a traditional Thanksgiving meal and some had never had turkey at Thanksgiving,” Rice said. So, with the help of teachers and staff members, she arranged for every family (nearly 150) to receive a traditional Thanksgiving basket that included a turkey. Inside the basket she placed a note asking for families who were able to “Pay It Forward” and share the basket with someone who might need it.
  • Stacy Johnson, Campton Elementary School in Wolfe County.
    Stacy Johnson, a second-year UNITE Service Corps (AmeriCorps) member at Campton Elementary School in Wolfe County was presented a “Hal Rogers Difference Maker” award from Adam Rice, field representative for U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers on May 23. During her first year as an AmeriCorps member she and other teachers “set to work keeping life as normal as possible and never missed a beat with meeting the academic, emotional and physical needs of the students and their families” following a devastating tornado damaged the school, Rice said. This year, she and two other USC members organized the “Stuff the Bus” food drive (“the largest donation of non-perishable food items ever received by the Catholic Charity in Wolfe County”) and created a USC Facebook page for members to exchange ideas.
  • Jeremy Smith, James A. Cawood Elementary School in Harlan County.
    Jeremy Smith, a second-year UNITE Service Corps (AmeriCorps) member at J.A. Cawood Elementary School in Harlan County was presented a “Hal Rogers Difference Maker” award from Adam Rice, field representative for U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers on May 23. “Jeremy is the type of member who doesn’t just reflect and ponder problems and situations. He reacts to them in a positive manner,” Rice said. Specifically, Smith took it upon himself to complete 30 food baskets (to feed a family of 4) for students whose parents lost coal-mining jobs. In addition, he helped two brothers who had been missed school because of an injury by taking them Christmas shopping and becoming “the positive male role model in their lives that they needed.”
  • Arlina Spencer and Amy Spicer, Highland Turner Elementary School in Breathitt County.
    Amy Spicer, left, and Arlina Spencer, both second-year UNITE Service Corps (AmeriCorps) members at Highland-Turner Elementary School in Breathitt County, were presented “Hal Rogers Difference Maker” awards from Adam Rice, field representative for U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers on May 23. Known by their students as “The Twins,” Spicer and Spencer initiated a mentoring program for both boys and girls that “has helped the students develop emotionally, mentally, physically and socially,” Rice said. In addition, after returning home from Camp UNITE, they learned one of the girl campers was about to be taken into state care. Although the girl was from a different county, they “worked out a plan to protect her dignity in front of the other students” and talked with the social worker to reassure her that her younger brother was safe. “Arlina and Amy saw only the breaking heart of a child and their harts wanted to protect her,” Rice noted. “They are truly Hal Rogers Difference Makers.

Young Leaders

DSC_0068Students from Majestic Elementary were recognized during the luncheon for their outstanding efforts in the Pike County Young Leaders Program.

Receiving the awards for their excellence in participation, community service, and scrapbook were Haley Clark, Bobbie Hurley, Paige Kirk and Jasmine Prater.

Kelli Thompson, Gifted and Talented coordinator for the Pike County Public Schools, said every middle school in the county participated in this year’s program.