By Mark Powell
Critical Links in the Prevention Chain
It started with a newspaper’s investigation into drug misuse and abuse in Southern and Eastern Kentucky. The series of reports found that many areas with the highest per capita prescribing of prescription pills in the country were located within Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District, which includes the poorest parts of the Commonwealth.
“We were losing hundreds and hundreds of people,” says Nancy Hale, Operation UNITE’s president and CEO. “We have really lost two generations to this problem.”
In response, Congressman Hal Rogers (who represents the 5th District) assembled a wide array of people – including elected officials, the faith-based community, school officials, families, law enforcement personnel, and treatment providers – to brainstorm a coordinated response. They launched Operation UNITE in April 2003. It 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.
That was nearly 17 years ago. UNITE has grown a lot, and adjusted its focus as needed over time to respond to the epidemic. Yet, the group remains at the forefront of assisting people who need help.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
There’s not enough space to list all of Operation UNITE’s many activities and programs – its compassion and passion know no bounds. But what’s most exciting is the impact the organization is making on communities across Eastern Kentucky and the Appalachian region.
“Folks have heard the prevention message from Operation UNITE for more than 16 years now,” Hale concludes. “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.”
Operation UNITE was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.