WILLIAMSBURG – Throughout the week, participants in the 9th annual Camp UNITE engaged in fun activities designed to develop leadership and communication skills, promote teamwork and problem solving, instill confidence and trust, and let youth know they do not have to face difficult situations on their own.

The underlying theme to camp – there is “Hope In Action” by remaining free from alcohol, tobacco and other drugs – was driven home by speakers during an emotional closing ceremony on Friday, July 24.

This summer 192 middle school-aged youth from 23 counties attended Camp UNITE, held on the University of the Cumberlands campus. Activities during the week included competitive events, swimming, outrageous games, motivational speakers, a visit to the Hal Rogers Water Park, and more.

One of the most valuable components of camp is the peer mentorship and positive role models provided this year by 55 high school and college students who served as team leaders. These leaders were supervised by a staff of 50 adults and aided by an additional 70 community volunteers.

Six of the campers and team leaders shared their personal, heart-tugging stories about overcoming bad situations resulting from substance abuse within their homes. For several, it was their first time to talk openly about their past.

“I don’t have parents,” offered one young lady, adding her dad died of an overdose and her mom hasn’t spoken to her in four years.

Another noted she was born dependent on drugs due to her mother’s addiction.

“You can have everything and still go down the path of drug abuse,” said one young man. “You make it through by the choices you make.”

“Each of us does not have to be like our family,” added another youth. “There is a bright side. You can be your own person.”

“Sometimes we have bad things happen that bring out the good in each of us,” summarized Tom Vicini, a UNITE coalition coordinator. “Know that there are people who really care about you … that strangers can actually love you. Take that hope back with you as you leave today.”

Keynote presenter Jerod Thomas captivated attendees by recounting how he had lost everything – including a promising million-dollar-per-year career in the National Football League – because he did not resist peer pressure to try drugs.

“There is something inside you that makes you want to be popular,” said Thomas, who grew up with an abusive father who was an alcoholic and a bookie. To make matters worse, he also suffered from dyslexia.

“Whatever God takes away from you he gives you something else (to compensate),” Thomas said, adding he was encouraged to try out for football. “It was fast and violent. It was my house. It came easy for me.”

Early successes on the gridiron led to some bad choices and a feeling of entitlement because “I never paid (consequences) for what I did. … I was becoming a little monster.”

Thomas was a member of the Marshall University Thundering Herd National Championship team in 1987 and the Southern Conference championship team in 1988. He was a defensive starter at free safety and an Academic All-American.

He transferred to Morehead State University for his senior year, where he was Defensive Captain and named to the All Ohio Valley Conference Team. He made the starting roster for the NFL Arizona Cardinals’ mini-camp, but his addiction to cocaine and drinking led to a lifetime ban.

Within a short period of time he had lost his wife and son, was living in his car, and had spent numerous nights in jail for felony drug convictions.

He was given a final reprieve by a judge in Fayette County who sent him to rehab at WestCare Kentucky’s facility in Pike County.

Thomas ultimately received his Master’s of Education degree at the University of Tennessee, and taught and coached high school athletics in the Tennessee school system. He left teaching and pursued a career in sales, which included various products and services, and a position as National Sales Director for an athletic apparel company.

But, in 2009, he felt called to help others like himself and joined the WestCare staff as a drug and alcohol counselor. He was promoted to Program Director for the Boyle County Detention Center Substance Abuse Program, and currently serves as Deputy Administrator, overseeing all of WestCare’s treatment programs in Kentucky.

Stay positive and try not to make things harder for others, because “you don’t know what is going on behind closed doors,” he said, referencing the comments made earlier by the youth campers and team leaders. “The race in the end is only with yourself.”

Dr. Larry Cockrum, president-elect of the University of the Cumberlands, provided a whimsical welcome with his modified rendition of Baxter Black’s “People Are Funny Critters,” referencing the many antics that occurred on campus throughout the week.

He ended with a simple, straight-forward message to his young audience: “Make sure you graduate.”

Shedding his tie and taking a seat center stage, Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers told campers it was important to take a stand for what you believe.

As a private attorney, the Clay County native said he made lots of money practicing criminal law. But, in 2005, Stivers promised his ailing father that he would quit defending drug dealers and “do something based on what is good for my community” instead of putting money in his pockets.

“I fought some of the toughest battles in my political career” supporting legislation targeting drug diversion, toughening penalties for drug sales, requiring better prescriber education, expanding treatment opportunities, and restricting the sale of controlled substances, Stivers noted.

Following his address, Stivers presented camp medals to the attendees and asked each participant to sign a pledge to remain drug free.

Camp UNITE is presented by Toyota Motor Manufacturing-Kentucky along with camp sponsors: AmeriCorps-Kentucky; Appalachia HIDTA; Applebee’s of Pikeville; Community Trust Bank, Kentucky Employers’ Mutual Insurance (KEMI); Owens, Inc.; and the City of Williamsburg, Kentucky Splash Water Park; Christian Appalachian Project, Corbin Ice Company, Cumberland Gap Mountain Spring Water, Kentucky Army National Guard, Southeastern Kentucky PRIDE, and the University of the Cumberlands.