MANCHESTER – A sign along the Hal Rogers Parkway at Manchester welcomes visitors to “The City of Hope.”
On Friday, 10 years after the launch of Operation UNITE, elected officials and community volunteers gathered to celebrate two new reasons for Hope in the fight against drugs: a wall celebrating those who have overcome addiction and a state-of-the-art mobile education classroom that will be used in schools across southern and eastern Kentucky.
“It is time to start celebrating the lives that have been forever changed through your treatment and recovery efforts,” Fifth District Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers told the nearly 250 people gathered for the announcement.
“In the midst of those cries for help we’re beginning to hear more tears of joy and triumph,” Rogers said, noting that for the first time in a decade Kentucky drug-related overdose deaths declined last year. “It is because of your efforts.”
“Today we celebrate victories, celebrate recovery and celebrate hope,” noted Clay County Pastor Doug Abner, whose efforts helped spark church involvement in the anti-drug fight a decade ago.
Members of the Chad’s Hope Teen Challenge Center, a faith-based recovery program located northwest of town, unveiled the new UNITE “Hope Wall,” which features photos and brief statements about the individuals’ journeys to sobriety. Through “the word of their testimony,” Rogers noted, maybe others will realize there is a way out of the shackles of addiction.
An example of a family’s struggles was shared by long-time educators John and Nancy Hale of Rockcastle County. Their son – a model student and athlete – became addicted on medication that had been prescribed for an injury. Through many ups and downs he eventually turned his life around, recently graduated from law school and has gotten married.
“One of the things we’ve learned in the middle of the pain is that we are not alone,” Nancy Hale said, referring to their steadfast faith throughout the years-long process. “We had to choose life” to make sure no other parent goes through what their family has endured.
Recovery is just a part of the picture.
“I think we all agree that the best way to save our children from suffering through the pains of withdrawal, relapses in recovery, and the trials of drug addiction is through education,” Rogers said, introducing UNITE’s new “On The Move” mobile classroom.
This latest initiative – funded through a three-year competitive Rural Health Outreach grant awarded through the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration – features an interactive drug prevention program tailored to elementary, middle and high school students. In addition, youth will participate in three interactive training modules that focus on the consequences of distraction and impairment from alcohol and other drugs.
“Education is vitally important, but the love of one person can make a huge difference,” said Dr. Michael Benson, president of Eastern Kentucky University, who shared his own family’s story of dealing with addiction.
“I’m proud to be associated with this cause,” Benson said, pledging EKU’s support. “We want to be a part. We want to bring the power of education to the fight against drugs.”
The interior of the mobile classroom features colorful hand-painted murals. Rogers presented the artist, Rebecca Arvin of Rockcastle County, with a “Difference Maker” award for donating her time and talent to the project.
State Senate President Robert Stivers, whose 25th District covers seven Eastern Kentucky counties, credited Rogers for giving him “a lot of political courage” to take on the drug fight in Frankfort.
Kentucky is frequently taking the lead in efforts to prevent and curb the effects of substance abuse, noted Mike Barry, director of People Advocating Recovery (PAR) in Kentucky.
Speaking about the “joys of recovery,” Barry emphasized that it is important to remove the stigma and discrimination of addiction and recovery.
Families “are afraid to reach out and ask for help (because of what others may think),” Barry commented, adding, “There is help. There is hope. And, there is healing.”
“UNITE is now a national model thanks to each one of you,” Rogers said. “It is the grassroots efforts and your individual courage of conviction that has helped save countless lives through the partnerships you have committed to the three branches of Operation UNITE – law enforcement, treatment and education.”