Disaster preparedness for youth goes virtual

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Even tornadoes have gone virtual in these days of remote schooling, social distancing and Zoom meetings.

Jesse Coates, American Red Cross volunteer, recently led a lesson for seven elementary school-age children from Wisconsin through a virtual version of our Pillowcase Project lessons. These lessons are typically very hands-on, with dry-runs of disaster do’s and don’ts, and the occasional high-five.

pillowcase virtual pic THREE

A screenshot from a recent Pillowcase Project virtual lesson led by American Red Cross volunteer Jesse Coates.

So, in the current virtual and remote environment instilled by the pandemic, Coates relied on vibrant language, props and visuals from the lesson plan to engage his online “classroom.”

As Coates put it: “Tornadoes, they can be the scariest. Do you know what a tornado is?”

Isabelle, one of the students, put it plainly, through her computer screen on the other side of the state: “Mean.”

Coates: “You guys rock, you’re awesome at this. You all are smart, that’s right … and remember to stay inside and away from windows.”

Pillowcase Project is typically taught by a few volunteers, in front of entire classrooms of kids, as an extreme weather and disaster preparedness course for youth ages 8-to-12. It’s complemented by Prepare With Pedro, another preparedness lesson set for 4-to-8-year olds.


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During the recent first round of virtual lessons, Coates was clearly still finding ways to have fun and learn, and get the young people in this lesson to do the same. In materials shared on the screen and guidebooks accessed by adults who helped to guide their young attendees, Coates talked through things like where to go if tornado sirens sound, and how to cope with destruction from a fire. And, as children often do, they posed unexpected and big-picture questions.

From Isabelle, one of the students: “What starts the fires?”

Coates: “Fires have a mind of their own. It happens everywhere in all sorts of weird ways, that’s why we want to talk about this now … and talk about it with the big people at home.”

Our teams are ready to lead virtual disaster preparedness lessons for schools, organizations and youth groups. For information and scheduling, contact Nick Cluppert, Red Cross Senior Disaster Program Manager, at nick.cluppert@redcross.org.  

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