Youth Preparedness Takes Center Stage—White House Style

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In January, I had the great honor of anchoring a delegation of FLASH partners to participate in a White House recognition ceremony celebrating the National Strategy for Youth Preparedness Education.

FEMA launched the initiative in September of 2014 with a goal to bring children into the disaster-safety movement through innovative programs like America’s PrepareAthon!; the American Red Cross Pillowcase Project; and several of our own, including StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes® at INNOVENTIONS at Epcot® at the Walt Disney World® Resort.

This was not a first-time award or recognition for StormStruck, but it is especially meaningful to us as some considered the project quite risky before opening in 2008. Not everyone shared our vision of using the proven Disney formula for “edu-tainment” to carry the message of disaster-safety and mitigation to guests of all ages. Some doubted that StormStruck could leverage storytelling to empower future generations to prepare and choose resilient structures. Some even considered tackling disaster topics in an entertainment venue inappropriate, not serious enough.

But we were confident. We had committed partners. And we were right.

Millions of happy guests later, we realized we had created something extraordinary—and not just for the kids. Visitors from around the globe, including disaster victims, have come through our 4D storm, played our dynamic rebuilding game, and enjoyed the myriad show elements. And periodic guest surveys demonstrate that they not only get the point of the venue, but they want everyone in harm’s way to come, learn, and enjoy.

Think about it. As parents, we know that our children can influence our decision-making about everything from where to grocery shop to social-change movements. Consider the generation of children who grew up recycling and the impact on the green movement. It’s a two-way formula. Our kids wear seat belts, and eschew cigarette smoking. We could hardly do differently.

In FEMA’s Preparedness in America report, household survey findings indicate that “households with school children who brought home preparedness materials were significantly more likely to report preparing than those who did not receive materials: they were 75 percent more likely to have a household plan they had discussed as a family, and twice as likely to have participated in a home drill.”

One way or another, our kids influence our behavior, and that makes a focus on youth preparedness doubly effective.

Before I joined the disaster-safety movement, I had the privilege to work with highway safety advocates on issues from bicycle helmets to drunk-driving prevention. One day, I learned firsthand how even incidental messaging can affect children. My daughter was about four years old, and frequently accompanied me to safety events. One day right after I had put her in her car seat to head out, I got behind the wheel and picked up my can of Tab (years before Diet Coke). All of a sudden, I heard a little voice from the back say, “Mommy, don’t drink and drive!”

I was amazed. For just a moment, I considered trying to explain the difference between alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, but immediately abandoned the idea. I realized that she had gotten a safety message, embraced it, and was going to share it. I said, “Okay of course,” threw away the soda and drove on.

The experience reinforced for me the power and responsibility we have when messaging to children. In my work since then, I have learned that unlike the scare tactics of the past, today’s successful initiatives put children and adults alike in charge of safety and resilience by engaging without frightening. In true Disney style, we make them the hero.

According to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, “Children who learn about emergency preparedness experience less anxiety during an actual emergency or disaster. This National Strategy will encourage communities and organizations to give children and their families the information they need to prepare for disasters.”

FEMA has it figured out. Youth preparedness isn’t just about youth. Young people both learn and teach.

And if we’re smart, we will remain their students.

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