A Cord of Three Strands

A Cord of Three Strands

Operation Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education (UNITE) President Nancy Hale has actively worked with UNITE for 12 years, from volunteering at her local Rockcastle County coalition to serving as co-program director of UNITE’s Service Corp initiative. After more than three decades in public education, Hale’s knowledge of how to educate young people and her intense passion from her first-hand knowledge of battling addiction in her family, create a recipe for success for this eastern-Kentucky organization. Joined by Deputy Director Tom Vicini and Education and Treatment Director Debbie Trusty, the three discussed UNITE’s biggest successes, the implementation of dozens of programs that affect thousands of students across their region and the deep pathways they’re making in drug-abuse prevention and education in Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District. 

Listen to the entire interview below.


HAVING JUST CELEBRATED ITS 14TH ANNIVERSARY, WHAT HAVE BEEN THE BIGGEST KEYS TO UNITE’S SUCCESS?

President Nancy Hale: I think the biggest key to success has been the coalitions in each county. Those are the people who are living this problem every day in their homes, churches, communities and schools. They are the ones who really hold us accountable, who want to do something, but just need guidance and leadership. 

Second, is the holistic aspect of UNITE. There is no other organization like UNITE that has taken law enforcement, treatment and education and has them all working together. 

Education and Treatment Director Debbie Trusty: Hearing parents go from talking in terms of, ‘When my child has a drug problem or when they start experimenting,’ to, ‘This is what I do to prevent them from doing this,’ that is a huge cultural change. 

Also, people now in our region realize addicts have a disease, they are not bad people. UNITE has been very successful in lifting that stigma and realizing we all have a responsibility for that person coming back to the community. And also realizing a lot of these kids come from homes where they have a very difficult chance, and understanding it’s not just their kids or her kids, it’s our kids.

Deputy Director Tom Vicini: I’ll build on what Nancy said about coalitions – UNITE empowers people in the community to do something about the drug problem. We give them funding so they actually can do something, not just talk about it. They tell us what they’re going to do and we give them money so they can establish prevention programming in their communities. And then we guide them through those programs.

Second is the major influence we’ve had on young people in our 32 counties through our programming. Those programs have built up to where young people know about UNITE, our brand and what we stand for. We’ve helped change their attitude about substance abuse. 

(L-R) UNITE Deputy Director Tom Vicini, President Nancy Hale and Education and Treatment Director Debbie Trusty stand in front of the organization’s On the Move trailer. The trailer is used to travel throughout UNITE’s district teaching students about drug and alcohol impairment and the dangers of abuse and addiction. (Photo by Jim Robertson)

(L-R) UNITE Deputy Director Tom Vicini, President Nancy Hale and Education and Treatment Director Debbie Trusty stand in front of the organization’s On the Move trailer. The trailer is used to travel throughout UNITE’s district teaching students about drug and alcohol impairment and the dangers of abuse and addiction. (Photo by Jim Robertson)

Hale: I think another major success is we have given students the facts, using what we’ve learned from science. These young people are intelligent and they want to know more. 

A couple years ago, I was in Pike County giving presentations in the On the Move trailer to about 15 sophomore boys. We were having a really good discussion as we went through the PowerPoint, and they were throwing out some heavy questions, particularly about marijuana. I said, ‘Let’s look at the facts and studies. I can tell you what the American Medical Association says, the National Institute of Health and National Institute of Drug Abuse says.’

One of those is a New Zealand study which followed participants from the 1970s until now, to show consistent smoking of marijuana actually lowers IQ, and you don’t get it back. After we finished and the boys were leaving, one of them walked up and you could tell he was angry. He said, ‘I want to tell you two things. First, I have smoked pot, but I am not going to smoke it anymore – my goal in life is to get smarter not dumber. The second is a question, why has no one told me this before?’ 

All I knew to do was apologize – we’ve done a really poor job in our schools and communities telling kids the facts. His question has haunted me. UNITE has been successful because we deal with evidence-based facts. 

IN A RECENT CONGRESSIONAL SUBCOMMITTEE MEETING YOU SAID THE LONGER YOU WERE INVOLVED IN FIGHTING THE OPIOID EPIDEMIC, THE MORE CONVINCED YOU WERE THAT K-12 EDUCATION WAS THE KEY TO SAVING THE NEXT GENERATION. WHAT ARE UNITE’S PRIMARY WAYS OF EDUCATING THE K-12 POPULATION, AND WHAT MEASURABLE SUCCESSES HAVE YOU SEEN IN THESE EDUCATION EFFORTS?

Hale: We’re still working on trying to convince the Kentucky Department of Education and our general assembly that we need a K-12 prevention curriculum.  There are programs that are developmentally, age and culturally appropriate that start as early as preschool and build that foundation. 

There are many other things we already are doing. One is an Americorp program called UNITE Service Corp. The 54 Americorp members working in elementary schools in southeastern Kentucky provide math tutoring. We perform pre- and post-testing. The University of Kentucky compiles data for us, and we’ve seen more than a 30-percent increase in student math performance. In addition to math tutoring, they teach a curriculum called Too Good for Drugs to every fourth grade student (in Pike County it is fourth and fifth grade.) Students have shown a 35-percent increase in awareness with this program. 

Then there’s On the Move, which Tom (Vinici) directs, working with Mark Davis. That’s our mobile prevention unit that targets seventh and 10th-graders. Some students are in our On the Move mobile trailer where we present a PowerPoint, like I mentioned earlier.  

While some are in the trailer, other students are in the gym going through simulated activities with driving-impaired programs, marijuana goggles and fatal-vision goggles. There also are small-group sessions where they talk about consequences.

Vicini: One of the things that’s really important to us is having our law enforcement group as part of this program to tell the kids about DUI laws and how they affect them. They do a really good job of letting students know the consequences of driving under the influence, and how it will affect the rest of their lives. 

Hale: I have seen so many young people who were stellar athletes, top of their class and academically strong, who lost everything. There are a lot of things in education – and I was in education for 34 years – that are important. For example, requiring every child to be certified and trained in CPR, there may be situations where that’s an important thing to know. But this is something that is urgent. We’re losing so many young people, we’re losing their families. We have to act urgently upon prevention.

We have to get proactive – we have to get ahead of it. The way we will do that is with that captive audience in school and starting young enough. We know that the average age of first time drug use in eastern Kentucky is 11. So if we’re waiting until eighth grade when they are 13 and 14 years old, we’ve missed it already.

Vicini: We also have UNITE clubs in elementary, middle and high schools. This year we have 96 clubs with 7,068 students, grades fourth to 12th. UNITE Club participants do a service component and a mentoring component. It’s not just a club where you get together and talk about things and design posters. They’re involved in sharing with their peers, which is an especially-critical component of spreading your message because they will listen to students quicker than they will adults.

Hale: There is a coalition-supported program in Rockcastle County I’ve been really proud of the past few years. The high school football coach’s wife, who is a fourth-grade teacher, said she had all these boys who didn’t want to learn how to read and didn’t think it was important. All they wanted to do was play football and get their driver’s licenses. So the coach began taking his football players into the fourth-grade classrooms, reading to the kids and talking about how you have to have passing grades to get your driver’s license. You can’t play if you’re failing classes. 

Out of that he developed Rocket Readers. He takes senior basketball, football, volleyball, swim and golf team members into fourth-and-fifth grade classrooms. The coalition buys them a kit of books and they go in and read to the kids and talk to them about the choices they make. They wear their jerseys, and those kids listen to them. And those young people at the same time now have a responsibility as role models. They have to be thinking about the choices they make, too. 

Vicini: I think it would be amazing to know that number of how many young people we have helped prevent from using drugs. I wish we knew that number.

One more program, Give Me a Reason, distributes free drug-testing kits, furnished by the Appalachian High-Intensity DrugArea. It’s a prevention tool for parents. Many kids start using drugs when they run around with their friends who have started experimenting and they say, ‘You need to try this.’ Well if there is a drug-testing kit sitting on the kitchen table, mom and dad can tell their children, ‘If you come in here acting funny, I have a kit right here, I can test you.’ It’s a
saliva-based test, so it’s not invasive. In roughly 20 minutes you can find out whether or not your child has been experimenting with drugs. You can get early intervention if you have to use it. But hopefully you’ll give your child a reason to say no, instead.

THE FIRST PART OF UNITES’S MISSION STATEMENT IS TO RID COMMUNITIES OF ILLEGAL DRUGS THROUGH UNDERCOVER NARCOTIC INVESTIGATIONS. HOW DOES UNITE PARTNER WITH LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT IN THESE INVESTIGATIONS? 

Hale: When UNITE started 14 years ago, it was really heavy on law enforcement and it had to be. If you read those articles in the Lexington Herald-Leader, they talk about the corruption and the drug dealing that was going on. As Congressman Hal Rogers says, there were a lot of bad actors who needed to be taken off the streets. So we had 35 undercover detectives and inter-local agreements with all of the sheriffs’ offices and chiefs of police in all 32 counties we serve, so these guys could work across county lines. 

We’re not as heavy on law enforcement now for several reasons. We really began to get a good grip on everything. Other law enforcement officials began picking up and working hard, too. Then with our funding being cut, that was one of the first areas that was adversely affected by the budget cuts. 

Now our detectives, except one, are assigned as DEA task-force officers. Instead of focusing on local, street-level dealings within the jurisdiction, they now work with the local law enforcement agents to decide what might become a federal case and get the bigger players. Our agents are involved in coordinating between the DEA and larger investigations and building those bigger cases. 

Vicini: We’ve just hired a law enforcement manager to be the liaison between UNITE and local law enforcement and to work with drug courts and education efforts in the schools. He also is in charge of our Take-Back program. 

He maintains the drug tip line. Every day, he checks the messages and contacts the appropriate agency to deal with the information. He may be calling 25 counties a day giving them information we’ve received over our tip line. 

IN UNITE’S PARTNERSHIP WITH THE KENTUCKY STATE POLICE IN THE ANGEL INITIATIVE, WHAT IS UNITE’S ROLE, AND WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES AND GOALS FOR THE PIKEVILLE PROGRAM? 

Hale: We knew about the Angel Initiative because Leonard Campanello (former chief in Gloucester, Mass.) who developed the program presented it at the national drug summit a few years ago. 

Commissioner Rick Sanders wanted to pilot it in Pike County. His goal is to have it at all 16 posts, and that’s our goal, too. Even though not all those other posts are in the 5th Congressional District, what happens in Richmond, for example, still affects us. 

Debbie (Trusty) was talking about social change – for people who are in crisis to go into the state police post and say, ‘I need help,’ is going to be a real cultural change. Our young people will see that officer is there to protect them, and he does that in many ways. He may do it by arresting drug dealers, those people who need to be off the street. But he also may do that by helping that person get into treatment. 

Are there ways law enforcement entities can support UNITE’s efforts apart from investigation and interdiction efforts?

Hale: I think education programming, awareness in the community and supporting the Take-Back program.

Vicini: When we have community meetings, we always try to include law enforcement because we want them to provide relevant information about what’s going on in their county. People need to know what is most prevalent in their county. And again, their efforts and prevention working with the coalitions and being a part of what’s going on in that community is vital. We need their support and their activity. We want people to see them and respect them for the great job they’re doing. 

There has been a lot of bad publicity on policing throughout the country over the past couple of years, but we see them from a different view point. We see people who really care about their citizens and want to make a difference. We want to highlight that and allow them to get out, work among the people and provide programming. They are doing a very good job of getting involved with their local coalitions and we want to increase those efforts. 

Involvement in UNITE or any other prevention program is the ultimate community policing where you can get positive affirmation that what you’re doing is working. 

Hale: It’s amazing to think about how much UNITE actually has its hands in. With the small team we have, we can’t do it all. It has to have the involvement of everybody, and law enforcement is one-third of that.

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