Former University of Kentucky basketball great Jeff Sheppard told kids how a drug-free lifestyle helped him win a college basketball championship in 1998, and could make their dreams come true as well.
Sheppard spoke during rallies for Operation UNITE at Corbin High School and Corbin Middle School Monday as part of a new effort by the organization to influence children in schools to stay away from drug use.
“When teams pull together, they win championships,” Sheppard told a group of 510 middle school students in Edwards Gymnasium before sinking a three-point shot.
“We are a team fighting against drugs. Drugs are a very tough opponent … if we pull together and lean on each other and encourage each other, we’ll win. You’ll win individually and we’ll win together as a school and a community.”
A native of Peachtree City, GA, Sheppard now resides in London with his wife and two children. He had a brief NBA career, and now owns his own apparel business called 15th INC.
Karen Engle, Executive Director of Operation UNITE, said his influence among the students was obvious.
“It is so difficult to find adult athlete role models for our kids these days because they are constantly bombarded with negative messages on TV and in the music they listen to,” Engle said. “Jeff has done everything right in his life and he believes in his goals. We are real fortunate to have someone for the kids to look up to.”
The rallies in Corbin followed similar rallies in Elkhorn City a week ago. Engle said Sheppard, who had been doing his own motivational speaking before teaming with UNITE, has agreed to spend every Monday in a different school district talking about the dangers of drug use. He will also spend one night a month hosting programs at different locations and has promised to oversee summer basketball clinics centered around a drug-free message.
Operation UNITE is an initiative founded by Fifth District Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-Somerset) and focuses on law enforcement, treatment and prevention measures for drug abuse in Rogers’ southeastern Kentucky district.
Chris Hart, Project ACE Coordinator for the Corbin School District, said the rallies had been planned for about a month.
“We put this together to get our students excited about our UNITE club and excited about ridding our community of drugs and the bad influences of drugs in our community,” Hart said. “We want to educate people about the bad effects drugs can have, especially illegal drugs.”
Project ACE began in October and is a $1.2 million grant program funded by the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. It focuses on preventing alcoholism and drug use among students through programs and additions to the district’s current curriculum.
After each of the rallies, students were encouraged to sign up for new UNITE clubs at each of the schools. Engle said the clubs will be formed and organized within 30 days, and will be sponsoring programs within 60 days and are a way, through peer influence, to lessen the likelihood of drug abuse among fellow students.
“If we can get them early, like in the schools where it really matters, then we won’t have to worry about arresting them or treating them down the road.”
Students were given blue glow sticks at the rallies. Hart said the sticks symbolized how each student was a shining light in their community. At the end of each rally, Frisbees, hacky-sacks, t-shirts and other free items were tossed into the assembly.
Sheppard also spoke at the Greater Corbin Chamber of Commerce to help spur interest in the Corbin Community Coalition – a group focused on improving four areas: education, business and development, health and wellness and drug prevention.
Hart, a member of the Corbin Community Coalition, said anyone interested in furthering the group’s goals is welcome to join and can contact him at Corbin High School at 528-3902.
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