The Pillowcase Project

STEUBENVILLE – Fifteen children in grades third through fifth are what the American Red Cross Jefferson County Chapter hopes to recruit for its local kickoff of the Pillowcase Project, a program that will give them information to “sleep on” as it teaches them about emergency preparedness and coping skills.

The one-hour presentation will be held on Aug. 23 in one of the shelterhouses at Jim Wood Park in Steubenville’s West End, beginning at 11 a.m. The program is funded by Walt Disney Co., and participants will get a free Disney pillowcase they can color and personalize during it. They’ll also receive a free workbook and refreshments, too.

But parents or guardians must pre-register by calling the local chapter located on Talbott Drive in Wintersville at (740) 264-7244.

John Gareis, regional preparedness manager of the Northeast Ohio Region, which takes in 22 counties, including Jefferson, Harrison and Carroll, recently discussed local plans for the Pillowcase Project with program presenters Margie VanKirk and Coral Sanders.

VanKirk, a Wintersville resident, is a seven-year volunteer with the local chapter, while Sanders, who lives in New Alexandria, is serving as a volunteer in line with her studies through Trinity Health System’s School of Nursing but also sees great value in the program as a mother of young children.

The two women will be the presenters at the kickoff later this month and beyond as the chapter hopes to introduce the program in Jefferson County schools come fall and encourage other children-oriented venues to embrace the program as well, such as organizations or churches with Sunday school programs, for example.

“We just now are launching this in Jefferson County,” Gareis said of the Pillowcase Project which is in the second phase of a five-year plan.

In 2013, the American Red Cross received a grant from the Walt Disney Co. to fund the development phase of the project that orginated in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The project was created by the Southeast Louisiana Chapter and implemented following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As the story goes, evacuating university students had carried their valuables in pillowcases to shelters where out of boredom they started coloring and decorating them.

Red Cross literature notes that was the inspiration to create a program around decorating pillowcases for the children living in makeshift communities across New Orleans during Katrina recovery. It evolved into a preparedness education program for elementary school students and was adapted by other Red Cross chapters with success.

The Walt Disney Co. funded the design and development phase of a multi-year effort to build on the success by creating a standardized, state-of-the-art preparedness education program.

On a regional level, Gareis said the Pillowcase Project took root in April and runs through next March.

“We have a small grant through Disney to get the materials to do this, and what we’ve done we’ve had three training sessions,” he said. The emphasis has been how to communicate the emergency preparedness information to children in the target age group – third- to fifth-graders who are receptive to it, understand it and want to participate, “which is really big.”

“What we’ve done in our region is we’ve done 50 presentations already since April,” he said, noting Lorain County has “really taken the lead on this, but it’s been done in Cleveland and Stark County as well as Wayne County.

“Our goal as the region is to do these presentations in all the 22 counties we cover by next March, so our budget goal is 3,000 kids and just about 1,500 so far have been reached, which is really good,” Gareis said.

The goals of the Pillowcase Project are to:

Increase youth awareness of hazards and the importance of personal preparedness;

Build skills in hazard-specific protective actions to reduce the impact of emergencies on youth and their families;

Increase coping skills to manage emergencies and build resilience in youth;

Increase household preparedness levels across the country; and

Incorporate preparedness education into elementary school curriculums and after-school programs.

The 60-minute presentation can target nine different hazards such as flood or tornadoes, according to Gareis, but more comprehensive home safety fire program are being developed.

“Fire safety is so important in teaching kids because about 90 percent of the disaster responses that we do nationawide are home fires, and kids are still victims as well as anybody, but we feelt that teaching kids at a young age, they are able to comprehend it, and if we start it at a young age, they’re going to remember a lot of these things,” Gareis said.

The fact that the Pillowcase Project exists speaks to the need for it, Gareis agreed.

“The concept of it is nothing new, but it’s a little bit different in the sense that we’re targeting young kids, and one of the things obviously is that Disney is a selling point.”

The Walt Disney Corp. partnered with the American Red Cross for the five-year initiatve nationwide with expectations of educating half a million children.

While pillowcases prestamped with Disney characters to color are a draw, the curriculum “is really comprehsenvie in the sense that there’s even materials for the educators to sort of pick up and foster these techniques and to continue on because we don’t want to just do a presentation, tell them some safety tips, and hope they share it, but we hope teachers will continue it and kids will go home with the materials,” Gareis said.

One of the core ingredients of the program is not only for the children to learn it, but to share the information with brothers, sisters family and friends.

It also introduces some coping skills in terminology easily understood.

“It’s a really neat program,” Gareis said of its “learn, practice, share” approach.

VanKirk and Sanders think so, too.

VanKirk said she enjoys working with children and is excited at the prospect of taking the program into county schools and connecting with school officials about doing so.

The program appeals to Sanders as a mother of young children.

The workbook, for example, contains a letter to parents about the importance of everything from planning and practicing fire escape plans to testing fire alarms.

Each presentation includes a quiz not so much to grade the participants but to reinforce the information and as a barometer of how clear the information is.

Presenters are encouraged to decorate their own pillowcases and share what types of items can go in there, such as bottled water, comfort items, flashlights, glow sticks, a first aid kit and peanut butter.

The contents, though, would be family specific, for instance, if there is an infant, then diapers would be essential.

The workbook offers suggestions on what can go in the pillowcase and is a springboard for a family discussion on what supplies would be best.

While the grant money runs out in March, Gareis said, “We’ve already made the intention to continue the program next year, so we’ll reapply for grant money. It’s a one-year grant cycle, so we’ve already decided on a regional level we’re going to continue this program because it has been very well received in our division, which handles Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.”

“The people in our region that we’ve approached about this are very receptive of this, and we’ve had good success, and I feel that will continue,” Gareis said.

“My goal even as a region to do 3000 kids, my real goal is to have presentations in every county in our region. That to me is more of a victory than hitting that number,” he added.

“Through the Pillowcase Project, children learn how to prepare for emergencies, practice what they have learned and share their knowledge with family and friends,” according to Red Cross literature. “Emergencies can happen at any time, in any home or community. Learning is the key to being prepared for emergencies.

“Practice is the best way to find out if you are really prepared. Sharing assures that, when an emergency occurs, everyone in your family knowswhat to do and how to help each other stay safe.