By Ashley Henyan
Long before I joined the Red Cross communications team, I was a Red Cross volunteer. I worked the reception desk at blood drives and brought comfort kits to patients at the VA Hospital. I enjoyed doing my part to help facilitate lifesaving blood donations, and it felt good knowing I could bring hope, sunshine and even a breath of fresh air into the lives of hospitalized veterans.
A few months into my Red Cross volunteer experience, I got wind of the Disney Pillowcase Project, a learn, practice, share curriculum aimed to arm third to fifth grade students with real-world emergency preparedness skills. Like any good Red Crosser, I took my online trainings and then completed the in-person Pillowcase Project Instructor course. I was so excited to get in front of my first classroom of students! But within days of completing my instructor certification, I accepted a paid position with the Red Cross, turning my focus to all things communications and putting my emergency preparedness teaching debut on hold.
Well, on hold for about four years…
On Feb. 6, 2019, along with my colleague, friend and fellow volunteer, Tim Suda, I assisted my very first Pillowcase Presentation for a group of fifth graders: Girl Scout Troop 15200 of the Pace Academy Lower School in Atlanta, GA. It was awesome! The students were engaged, inquisitive and even reminded me that a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter can go a long way during an emergency. We discussed the importance of talking with grown-ups at home about what to do during emergencies like home fires, tornadoes and hurricanes—and we discussed the importance of sharing the information learned with siblings, friends and neighbors.
The Pillowcase Project teaches more than practical emergency preparedness skills. It also teaches students how to cope, emotionally, with feelings that might arise before, during and after a disaster. Appropriately, we call this component of the presentation: Coping Skills—more specifically, Symbol of Strength and Breathing with Color. Symbol of Strength is exactly what it sounds like. Students visualize themselves doing an activity that makes them feel strong and confident. Then, they take an imaginary selfie of themselves feeling great, paste their selfie onto an imaginary shield, and rest assured knowing they can use their shield to feel strong, anytime they need it. The second component, Breathing with Color, is a simple meditation where participants breathe in all the good, their favorite shade of blue—and then breathe out any negative feelings they are having, visualizing the gloomy color gray leaving their minds and bodies.
As a communicator with the Red Cross, I regularly tell stories about volunteers and their involvement in disaster relief action. Rarely though, do I get to be a part of the preparedness efforts that go on behind the scenes, efforts that help people survive during and thrive after catastrophic emergencies and disasters. That’s why it felt so good to get out and help teach a Pillowcase Project Presentation—even if it was four years in the making. Plus, participating in the Breathing with Color exercise during the presentation only made the good feelings that come with volunteering even better!