Evelyn and George Pentz participate in the launch of virtual Pillowcase classes in the Northwest Region

By Gordon Williams and Darby Miller

A Red Cross public service message, found on Facebook and elsewhere, makes the point that disasters don’t stop simply because we are living through the COVID-19 pandemic. It is precisely because we continue to experience home fires, earthquakes, storms and wildfires that the Red Cross has turned its innovative Pillowcase Project into a virtual class for kids.

The Pillowcase Project teaches emergency preparedness to youngsters in grades three to five. It has been offered in schools and community organizations throughout the Red Cross Northwest region since 2014, says regional preparedness specialist Hannah Knowles who manages the project. Red Cross presenters use a workbook and other study materials to teach youngsters how to stay safe when disaster strikes. Knowles says she herself has done around 50 in-person Pillowcase presentations.

As part of the original exercise, kids got a pillowcase to decorate and take home. They then decide what emergency supplies to put in their pillowcase should disaster force them from their homes. Knowles explains that the use of pillowcases references Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when kids fleeing their homes in Louisiana used pillowcases to carry their belongings.

Knowles says that 1,300 schoolkids in the region took part in face-to-face Pillowcase presentations last year. She was on track to top that this year when the virus hit, and schools shut down.

Now the virtual version of the Pillowcase Project is up and running, delivered online instead of live in the classroom. The first virtual presentation was July 2; Knowles and Red Cross volunteer Joy Glassberg were the presenters.

Kaelynn Thompson learns about the importance of an escape plan during a virtual Pillowcase presentation

The event drew a dozen kids, mostly the offspring of Red Cross workers. They were chosen to test drive the program in its first public offering. The next program, open to anyone, will be in mid-July. Knowles hopes to offer at least two virtual presentations a month going forward. Her goal is to present the Pillowcase Project to at least 2,400 kids in the Red Cross Northwest Region this year.

The Pillowcase Project is a national Red Cross offering, tailored to the realities of each region. When the program is aimed at kids in Western Washington, the emphasis is on staying safe during an earthquake. In Eastern Washington, the emphasis is on staying safe through a wildfire.

By going virtual, the Red Cross can keep Pillowcase running even though schools are shut down. Because Knowles has a crew of trained volunteer presenters, live Pillowcase presentations can resume as soon as schools reopen.

The obvious question is how well the virtual Pillowcase was received by its target audience — school-age youngsters. For an answer, we turned to our correspondent in the field. Darby Miller, who is 9, took part in the July 2 pioneering event. Darby’s mom, Betsy, is communications program manager for the Red Cross Northwest Region.

So how did Darby react to virtual Pillowcase? “It was cool,” she says. “They taught us how to react to a real emergency, and that was really helpful in case we are ever in one. It is probably never going to happen, but it is better to be prepared than not to be.” We asked Darby if the virtual presentation made her feel as if she was back in school. “It didn’t feel like school because I was in the backyard on the computer,” she says.

In a live presentation, kids would be handed workbooks and pillowcases. In virtual Pillowcase, kids get computer links to the workbook and to instructions on how to decorate a pillowcase borrowed from home. “It would have been better if we got to actually make the pillowcase in the class,” Darby says, “but the good thing is that we know how to do it.”

So, what would Darby put in her pillowcase? She picks clothing, a toothbrush and toothpaste, water, a jacket and a blanket. Her final pick for the pillowcase is Lucy — “a stuffed lamb from infancy,” explains mom Betsy.

Not quite ready for a virtual audience is Pedro the Penguin, featured on this blog in January 2020. The Pedro emergency preparedness presentation is tailored to even younger learners, grades K-2. Once ready, Northwest Region Blog readers will be among the first to know. 

To sign up your student or group for a Pillowcase Project presentation, email: NW.Preparedness@RedCross.org.

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