Empowering Kids to Make Their Families Safer


After graduating from college I moved to Anchorage, Alaska for a year of post-graduate service through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps NW and AmeriCorps. I served as the Preparedness and Casework Specialist for the American Red Cross of Alaska. Though often overlooked, Alaska is the largest state in the country (more than twice as big as Texas!) and has more coastline than the rest of the United States combined. While a large portion of the population lives in Anchorage, dozens of Native Alaskan villages are scattered all across the state, often hundreds of miles apart.Education in action

While in Alaska, I spent a good portion of my time managing The Pillowcase Project, a Red Cross youth preparedness program for students between the ages of 8 and 11. The program educates children about how to prepare for emergencies they might experience in their communities. Since the program started in Alaska, The Pillowcase Project has reached youth all over the state and has even crossed the Arctic Circle!

Pillowcases are not just for pillows

During Hurricane Katrina, a Red Crosser noticed college students were carrying their belongings in pillowcases as they evacuated to emergency shelters. Their actions inspired The Pillowcase Project, which uses an everyday household item to hold the necessary items for an emergency kit. Putting all of these supplies in one place makes it easier to grab and go in the event of an emergency.

The Pillowcase Project has reached over 800,000 children both nationally and globally. Trained instructors, mostly volunteers like me, share the curriculum with children in schools, after-school programs, summer camps, scout groups, and various venues.

Beyond the standard preparedness education curriculum, students decorate a pillowcase with symbols that are personal reminders of things that make them feel safe and brave. They are instructed to fill it with emergency essentials such as a first aid kit, flashlight, batteries, spare clothes, and a toothbrush. We also encourage students to include a comfort item such as a favorite stuffed animal or photographs of their friends and family to provide additional support during a stressful time. We also teach coping skills such as breathing exercises and positive visualization techniques, so our students know how to stay calm in stressful situations.

Learn. Practice. Share.Pillowcase Project education session in Los Angeles, CA

Research from FEMA shows that one of the best ways to promote family preparedness is by educating children, who then feel empowered to share what they learned with their families. It is often difficult to convince adults of the negative impact a disaster could have on their family and how important it is to be prepared. This is why The Pillowcase Project seeks to educate students; 8-11 year-olds who are able to accurately relay information and comprehend the curriculum to share it with others. The curriculum centers around three pillars:

  • LEARN. Kids learn about the types of natural disasters that are most likely to happen in their community or neighborhood. In the case of Alaska, we focused on earthquakes and home fires.
  • PRACTICE. We talked through different scenarios that were tailored to the children in the group, because one child might live in a trailer, one on the 7th floor of an apartment building, and one in a two story house.
  • SHARE. We always encouraged the kids to go home and share the information and skills they have learned with their family and friends. The kids I worked with were always so enthusiastic and excited to tell people about what they had learned, which makes this a very proactive preparedness education program.

Sounding the Alarm

7 people are killed in a home fire, and another 36 people are injured every day in the United States.No matter where or what kind of home you live in, you are at risk of experiencing a home fire. That is why every child educated through The Pillowcase Project learns home fire safety and prevention, not limited to how to properly maintain a smoke alarm to how to safely get out of a burning home.

Red Cross volunteers and partners all across the country install free smoke alarms, replace batteries in existing alarms, and help families create escape plans. This year, this Sound the Alarm effort will install its one-millionth smoke alarm. An impossible feat without the dedication and passion of those who believe in the value of disaster preparedness education and prevention.

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Source: CDC