FRANKFORT (5-30-18) – Benji Hammons, a former UNITE Service Corps (AmeriCorps) member, received the National Service Alumni Award for her volunteer and service contributions at the 23rd Annual Kentucky Governor’s Service Awards Wednesday, May 30, at the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda.
Hammons, a Laurel County resident who served as an AmeriCorps member at Cold Hill Elementary School from 2014-16, was among 15 individuals and four groups from across the state to be recognized by Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton and Executive Cabinet Secretary Scott Brinkman.
The annual awards are coordinated by Serve Kentucky – formerly known as the Kentucky Commission on Community Volunteerism and Service. Serve Kentucky is part of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS).
“These winners are truly the definition of ‘servant leadership’,” Lt. Gov. Hampton said. “Every day, they rise to the challenge of improving our Commonwealth, and Kentucky is much richer for the service of these volunteers. After learning about each honoree’s contributions to Kentucky, it’s impossible not to be inspired by their gifts to others. Showing our thanks today is just a small way to recognize the impact of their service. They are leading by example and encouraging others to fulfill great service.”
In addition, former UNITE Service Corps Program Director Eugene Newsome was recognized for his work with the AmeriCorps program from September 2010 through November 2015. Accepting the award for Newsome was Melinda Kincer, current Program Director of the UNITE Service Corps.
“Community service gets into your blood. It becomes who you are,” stated Shannon Ramsey, Operations Officer for Serve Kentucky. “Once you become so deeply engaged in a cause, you have established that commitment for life.”
Secretary Brinkman noted that this year’s award winners make a significant impact in their communities.
“From serving veterans to mentoring at-risk youth and helping adults coping with substance abuse, these volunteers are meeting needs at the local level,” Secretary Brinkman said. “They show that every one of us has the talent and time to do something good. For their wide-reaching contributions, they are Commonwealth’s shining stars.”
Serve Kentucky Executive Director Joe Bringardner said the Governor’s Office launched the volunteer awards program in 1975. Since 1995, Serve Kentucky has administered the program.
“Kentucky is rich with talented volunteers — those who dedicate themselves to helping others. This group represents the finest of that group. We are in awe of their worthy efforts to do whatever it takes to help our families, friends and neighbors.”
In addition to coordinating the Governor’s Service Awards, Serve Kentucky oversees an annual grant competition that awards funding to Kentucky AmeriCorps and other community service programs.
The UNITE Service Corps is a nationally-recognized AmeriCorps initiative with 54 full-time members providing math tutoring and drug prevention education at 54 schools in 16 districts (13 counties) for the 2017-18 school year.
Hammons currently works with UNITE through a collaboration with Partners for Education at Berea College to provide the evidence-based Too Good for Drugs™ (TGFD) curriculum at elementary schools in Knox County. TGFD promotes life skills, character values, resistance skills to negative peer influence, and resistance to the misuse and abuse of prescription and/or illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
“UNITE has significant experience in implementing TGFD in Appalachian Kentucky schools through the UNITE Service Corps for the past decade,” said Nancy Hale, UNITE President/CEO. “We have seen positive results in students who have taken the curriculum.”
UNITE Service Corps (AmeriCorps) Program Director Melinda Kincer, Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, and Benji Hammons
Hammons’ Award Narrative
My last three years of volunteer service have been some of the most impactful of my life. As an AmeriCorps member for two years, in my current role teaching drug prevention education, and my community service, I have had the opportunity to impact many young lives.
As an AmeriCorps member with the UNITE Service Corps, I served two years at Cold Hill Elementary School, located in rural Laurel County where I grew up. With enthusiasm, a positive attitude, and creativity, I engaged students in drug prevention activities and established a UNITE Club that was recognized as a “UNITE Club of the Year.”
I am a person who thinks “outside the box” and encourage others to do the same. School staff, parents, and community members were involved with a variety of these projects and activities – many of which included a life lesson. Projects included a sock drive, a flip-flop drive, a food drive that collected over 590 pounds of food for needy families in the community, and collecting pop tabs for The Ronald McDonald House in Lexington, KY.
The service project that stands out the most was establishing the “Cold Hill Community Garden,” a concept that has been duplicated in other areas of the state. I wrote a grant to obtain initial funding for the project. Students became excited as preparations began to clearly define the scope of the project and accomplish learning goals.
Students worked together to answer questions such as what to grow, how much to plant, and what steps needed to be taken. Entrepreneurship, fundraising, and business transaction ideas began to surface. The students divided into committees to work on the different phases of the garden project. Community businesses and individuals donated seeds, garden tools, and supplies.
Teachers considered how this project could relate to their subject areas. Many classroom discussions and activities took place prior to the actual planting stage. In math, teachers sought ways to supplement learning by asking such questions as: “What amount of seed will it take to yield ‘X’ amount at harvest?” and “How will you measure and calculate the size of the garden?” In science, teachers taught the plant life cycle, the process of photosynthesis, and plant phenotypes. In language arts, teachers required students to write about the experience and their expectations, explaining their thought pattern focusing on the need, purpose, benefit, and how they would implement the project.
Students enrolled in summer school tended the garden. Toward the end of summer and into the fall, the students harvested and took their produce home. Living in an impoverished area, I recognized the skill of gardening might ease some financial burdens. There is an adage: “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” The same holds true by teaching students how to grow a garden.
I served as a host at the 2016 National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, representing AmeriCorps to more than 1,900 participants representing 49 states, the District of Columbia, two U.S. Territories (Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands), and four countries in addition to the United States (Canada, Kenya, Lebanon, and Taiwan). I was also assigned to assist the national press corps and Secret Service in preparation for former President Barack Obama’s appearance at the Summit.
My life after AmeriCorps and the garden project continues to bear fruit. Using the Segal Education Award, I earned an education degree with a teaching certificate in primary through fifth grade. In 2017, in collaboration with a Berea College Promise Neighborhood grant, I was hired by Operation UNITE as a Prevention Curriculum Specialist to implement the “Too Good For Drugs” curriculum to all fourth-grade students in Knox County schools. Last year the county only had 35 elementary students registered in UNITE Clubs; this year, there are 927 students! I may have changed titles, but I didn’t leave behind the program I love.
I carry my status as an AmeriCorps alumna with great passion. I stay connected with UNITE Service Corps members by volunteering to serve as a mentor. I have enabled my students to have a voice when it comes to drug misuse. I try to never be too busy to have a conversation with a current member, whether it is a problem that needs solving or answering questions regarding the program. I want to set an example for all AmeriCorps members, encourage them to continue their service beyond their term, and to be a voice within their schools and communities.
Being part of AmeriCorps has helped me be more impactful in other volunteer service within my community. I have been a member of the local volunteer fire department and the ladies auxiliary for 20 years. I attend church and teach Sunday school. I serve as a volunteer member of both the Laurel County and Knox County UNITE Coalitions.
I have always had a servant’s heart, but the AmeriCorps program taught me the importance and true meaning of volunteering and serving others. My goal is to keep the kids engaged in doing activities that will help themselves and the community. We must all take a stand and do more for our youth. They are our only hope. Students are the next generation, and we must teach them to be strong, loving, and productive citizens.
Thank you for selecting me to receive the Governor’s Service Award.