LOUISVILLE – Operation UNITE’s unique three-pronged approach to combating drug misuse and abuse was honored by the national Addiction Policy Forum as one of 10 innovative programs addressing Kentucky’s addiction crisis.

The “Kentucky Innovations to Address Addiction” report was released by Addiction Policy Forum November 6 during a luncheon ceremony at Churchill Downs.

“The Kentucky Innovation Now report recognizes revolutionary programs, such as Operation UNITE, that are transforming the response to addiction in Kentucky and offering solutions during a time of crisis,” said Jessica Hulsey, founder of the Addiction Policy Forum, a non-profit headquartered in Bethesda, MD.

UNITE was the nation’s first three-pronged, grassroots, holistic approach to combating the issue of drug addiction by bringing together law enforcement, treatment, and prevention/education initiatives when it was founded by Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers (KY-5th) in 2003. UNITE has adjusted its focus as needed over time to respond to the epidemic, and remains at the forefront of assisting people who need help.

“We were losing hundreds and hundreds of people. We have really lost two generations to this problem, but because of prevention programs we have hope,” said Nancy Hale, UNITE President and CEO. “We are honored to be recognized by Addiction Policy Forum – along with these other outstanding programs – as an innovative solution to the addiction crisis in Kentucky.”

Keynote speaker for the awards program was Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley.

“Innovation Now reimagines how we address addiction,” said Kimberly Clapp, Executive Vice President for Community Engagement with Addiction Policy Forum. “The initiative showcases innovative programs and interventions from across the nation that are actively transforming the field of addiction, that address addiction, and provide support for families and communities.”

UNITE staff attending the Innovation Now awards program at Churchill Downs in Louisville were, from left, Communications Director Dale Morton, Education & Treatment Director Debbie Trusty, President & CEO Nancy Hale, and Coalition Coordinator / Treatment Assessment Coordinator Dawn Lang.

Kimberly Clapp, Executive Vice President for Community Engagement with Addiction Policy Forum, announces UNITE’s award.

Award Recipients

In addition to Operation UNITE, those programs honored with Innovation Now Kentucky awards for helping people impacted by substance use disorder, saving lives, and changing society’s response to addiction were:

  • Courtrooms to Classrooms, a Rowan County program that teaches students in social studies classes how to stay on the right path, and the consequences of both bad and good choices.
  • Kentucky START (Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Teams), a Child Protective Services program for families with parental substance use issues and child abuse/neglect that helps adults achieve sobriety and keeps children with them.
  • DV8 Kitchen, a Lexington-based restaurant that partners with five treatment providers to hire people directly out of treatment to support their recovery.
  • Freedom House of Louisville, a residential treatment program for pregnant women and women with young children. (Freedom House will officially open their second location in Manchester later in November.)
  • Kenton County Detention Center’s COR-12 JSAP (Comprehensive Opioid Response with 12 Steps Jail Substance Abuse Program), where addiction issues are addressed by bringing treatment direction into the jail system.
  • HEART (Heroin Expedited Addiction Recovery Treatment), a Covington-based program that diverts people who face low-level, non-violent offenses from jail into meaningful, intensive drug treatment.
  • BOAT (Bullitt Opioid Addiction Team), a program that educates people about addiction and even teaches children how to administer the overdose reversal drug Naloxone.
  • Young People in Recovery-Louisville. One of nine state chapters of this national organization, where young adults provide advocacy and recovery support within their local communities.
  • Voices of Hope, a Lexington-based program that helps people in recovery stay in recovery by providing no-cost peer-delivered recovery support services.

UNITE Initiatives

Youth prevention is UNITE’s primary focus. Age-appropriate initiatives target youth throughout their school years. These include: Internet safety, drug awareness and prevention instruction, and health decision-making programs for elementary students; a one-of-a-kind mobile prevention unit emphasizing the impact of impaired and distracted driving for middle and high school students; and has just initiated a program about vaping.

UNITE also offers school-based anti-drug clubs and special sports-related programs – archery, basketball, fishing, and golf – to emphasize fun, drug-free alternatives. Its signature initiative, Camp UNITE, brings hundreds of middle school-aged youth together on a college campus for a week each summer. Camp UNITE is comprised of a variety of action-packed activities designed to develop leadership and communication skills, promote teamwork and problem solving, instill confidence and trust, and – perhaps most important – let youth know they do not have to face difficult situations alone.

In addition, UNITE provides high school seniors with “I Am UNITE” scholarships for post-secondary education. A total of 157 scholarships have been presented in the past seven years. Recipients serve as “UNITE Ambassadors” on their college campuses. “We once had an intern who was an honor student at Eastern Kentucky University,” Hale remembers. “He said there was a lot of drinking and drug use on campus. Then he noticed there was also a group that didn’t participate; all of them were from Eastern Kentucky and had been exposed to UNITE programs.”

More than 267,000 youth have participated in UNITE-sponsored youth prevention/education activities since UNITE’s inception. This number does not include participants in UNITE Coalition-sponsored youth programs. Coalitions, one in each of its 32-county service region, are the heartbeat of UNITE, working to implement education and treatment initiatives while supporting the organization’s investigative component.

Operation UNITE’s law enforcement component obviously focuses on investigations. Detectives conduct criminal drug investigations, many of which originate from out-of-state drug trafficking rings, assist in the prosecution of drug traffickers, and supports local departments with drug investigations. But their scope is much broader. Officers manage a medication dropbox program, respond to a drug tip line, are engaged with helping individuals receive treatment, support recovery through Drug Courts, promote the UNITE Treatment Voucher Program, educate youth and adults about the dangers of drugs, assist with youth prevention initiatives, and support families who have been impacted because of a loved one’s substance use.

UNITE’s treatment initiatives include providing more than 4,500 individuals with vouchers so they could enter a long-term, residential treatment program. Staff responds to more than 1,000 inquiries each month connecting those with a substance use disorder and their families to treatment and support options. UNITE also staffs Kentucky’s statewide call center to connect individuals to resources for substance use disorders.

UNITE partners with the Kentucky State Police to support the Angel Initiative – which has enabled more than 150 people to obtain long-term treatment by walking into one of the 16 posts across Kentucky – and the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts to support Drug Courts. “Drug courts lower the recidivism rate and are more cost effective than sending a person to jail,” notes Dale Morton, UNITE’s communications director. “It’s a longer program, which holds a person accountable and gives them more opportunity for successful transition to long-term recovery.” Part of that recovery process includes partnering with organizations to provide aftercare, transitional housing, and transformational employment opportunities.

Operation UNITE created the annual Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit, the largest annual gathering of professionals from “federal to family” working to find solutions that address the prescription and illicit drug misuse epidemic. More than 3,500 individuals attended the event in 2019, including the President and First Lady, as well as directors of most federal agencies focused on the drug epidemic, leading professionals and advocates, and Congress.

“Folks have heard the prevention message from Operation UNITE for more than 16 years now,” Hale said. “The first young people who participated are now young adults in their communities. They are raising families, they are moms and dads and teachers now. And, they are making a difference.”