Camp UNITE: Sharing Stories, Spreading Hope

By Patrick Reed | 5/09/17 5:50 PM

Cheyenne lost her mother to opioid addiction while her father was stationed in Afghanistan. Chase’s father succumbed to prescription drug addiction, leaving him, his mother, brother and sister searching for answers. Carl overcame his own drug addiction and started out on a path to help others.

These young people serve as mentors at Camp UNITE, an annual, free four-day program held at the University of the Cumberlands for at-risk youth in Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District. The camp provides activities that develop leadership skills and promote teamwork. Camp staff and a team of volunteer counselors also give support to young people who are dealing with difficult life events, including having family members who struggle with addiction.

While producing the film Journey to Recovery, KET producers traveled to Williamsburg to learn more about Camp UNITE and witness how it provides a safe, caring, and helpful environment to children from all walks of life in Eastern Kentucky.

“Camp UNITE is for any middle-school student in the 5th Congressional District who is classified as at risk,” says Nancy Hale, president and CEO of Operation UNITE. “And any student in Kentucky is classified at risk for being exposed to the substance abuse problem.”

The camp is supported entirely through sponsorships and donations. It is part of Operation UNITE, a nonprofit whose name is an acronym for Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment, and Education. Operation UNITE was launched in 2003 by Hal Rogers, who represents Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District, as a service organization dedicated to fighting the opioid epidemic in Kentucky.

Many of the counselors at Camp UNITE, whether they are juniors or seniors in high school or are attending college, know first-hand the impact substance abuse can have on families and communities.

In Cheyenne’s case, her father was serving overseas when her mother succumbed to addiction. Cheyenne grew up in UNITE clubs offered at her school and became a camp counselor after her mother passed away.

“UNITE really gave me a voice,” she says. “Not all of the kids at Camp UNITE are affected by drug abuse, but some of them are, and if I can reach one or two, that’s enough for me.”

Chase, also a counselor, remembers his mother bringing his brother, sister, and him together to tell them that their father had died from addiction to prescription opioids. He, too, wants to share his experience with the middle-school campers and provide support to anyone who is undergoing a similar trial.

“I look at these kids and I see myself four years ago,” he says. “And when I look at them, what gives me hope is that they can have a better tomorrow, if I help them, or the camp helps them.”

Carl is a staff member at Operation UNITE and works as a coalition coordinator for education programs and the pilot program WISE (Why Internet Safety is Essential) for fourth, fifth, and sixth-graders. He is also in long-term recovery from drug abuse. Carl brings added insight to his role as a Camp UNITE leader by relaying his own personal journey, Nancy Hale says.

“I try to empower them,” Carl says. “I think the only chance that we have to turn this crisis around, you know, in our Appalachian culture, is through our young people. Giving them the power to make these decisions – that just because it’s in your family, just because your mom or your dad have done this, that doesn’t make you a drug addict too. You are the ones that can break the cycle and break this cultural normality of addiction.”

This year’s Camp UNITE will be held from July 25-28 at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg. For more information on Operation UNITE, visit http://operationunite.org/.