By Emiley L. Murphy, American Red Cross Volunteer
The school bell rings and 80 wide-eyed fourth graders stream into the auditorium. Taking a seat on the floor, they excitedly point out the distinct shirts of American Red Cross volunteers and stretch to get a better look at the boxes piled on a nearby table. Just like classrooms in hundreds of schools across the country, this group of curious students will embark on an emergency preparedness journey designed just for them.
In 2005, Kay Wilkins, CEO of the Southeast Louisiana Red Cross Chapter, and her team observed area residents as they began to evacuate from Hurricane Katrina. Inspiration struck in the form of local university students that gathered their belongings in pillowcases to escape the storm. It was that idea which launched the groundwork for The Pillowcase Project curriculum. Created to reach 3rd through 5th grade students using an interactive learn - practice - share method, this revolutionary curriculum soon spread throughout the New Orleans school system and in various Red Cross chapters. In 2013, Disney sponsored a multi-year Red Cross effort to create a standardized, state-of-the-art preparedness education program. Piloted in 60 Red Cross regions by the end of 2013, the curriculum was then modified and expanded in 2015 and implemented nationwide. With over 1 million students reached since its start, The Pillowcase Project has proved itself as a smart, engaging vehicle for teaching emergency management to youth.
Research has shown that equipping youth through emergency preparedness education creates stronger, more resilient communities. With programs such as The Pillowcase Project, these young ambassadors excitedly share their knowledge with members of their household which helps to boast their self-confidence and social interactions while decreasing their anxiety and fear in emergency situations. These are some of the reasons why youth preparedness is such an important component of how the Red Cross assists local communities.
Reflecting on educating a new generation of youth about emergency preparedness, Disaster Preparedness Coordinator May Kyaw says, “For me, in an emergency situation it is easy to think that it’s only about the response and recovery side, but it is the preparedness side that really matters. With The Pillowcase Project, I really enjoy talking to youth and seeing them enjoy their pillowcases and know they’ll be bringing them home and sharing them with their families.”
Employing a variety of teaching methods and activities, The Pillowcase Project curriculum includes practicing prevention and safety techniques for when a natural disaster occurs. It also incorporates the use of various age-appropriate coping skills to aid in managing stress during an emergency. Students learn phrases like “Get low and go” and “Get out, stay out, call 9-1-1” to use in case of a home fire and are encouraged to create evacuation plans with members of their household.
Using visual aids and question-and-answer sessions, presenters spend 40 to 60 minutes introducing each group of students to safe and understandable emergency preparedness techniques. By the end of each presentation, students take home a booklet filled with important information and tips as well as the program’s namesake, a pillowcase that serves as a tangible reminder of the importance of being prepared for any emergency.
Serving as a Disaster Preparedness Intern in Imperial County, Amy Diaz says, “I love working with The Pillowcase Project because the students enjoy it and I love seeing them be prepared for emergencies.”
To further prepare youth, the American Red Cross created an emergency preparedness app for youth ages seven to 11. “Monster Guard: Prepare for Emergencies” is a mobile game based on The Pillowcase Project curriculum where users earn points and medals as they role-play as different monsters to identify household hazards, locate safe spaces and practice protective actions related to different natural hazards. Download the free emergency preparedness game which helps youth prepare for real-life emergencies by going to redcross.org/apps or text ‘MONSTER’ to 90999 and receive a direct link to download the app.
To learn more about The Pillowcase Project in San Diego and Imperial Counties, to become a volunteer presenter or to schedule a presentation, please visit redcross.org/sandiego.