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Mid America TEEN CERT program helps young people be prepared, not scared

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 15, 2013 - A few days after 9/11, LaFaye Young drove from St. Louis to New York in  emergency response vehicle, delivering food to Ground Zero, the National Guard, the Coast Guard and others.

As a disaster specialist with the American Red Cross, Young was prepared to respond to the disaster, but a lot of people weren’t, especially young people.

“I saw a lot of people wanting to volunteer and, in particular, I saw young people, college-age people, trying to volunteer; and they had absolutely no disaster training at all.”

They should, though, she thought. And a friend she’d met through Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, trainings agreed. 

Mark Rosenblum had been working on the curriculum for a teen CERT program for years, and in 2003, the Department of Homeland Security asked him to write a program for teenagers, 12 to 18. Today, Mid America TEEN CERT has 560 graduates, with several hundred more soon to join those numbers, including Emily Rosenblum, Rosenblum's 15-year-old daughter, who has attended and assisted every training since the program began.

Rosenblum, the program director, and Young, who co-instructs the program, aren’t teaching the students how to jump in and save the day. Instead, during the 22-hour course, the teens learn

  • the realities of what they’ll see,
  • the pecking order for emergency management,
  • when, who and how to help
  • and when to get out of the way.

“We pound that into their heads,” Young says. “You don’t want to be another victim.”
Mid America TEEN CERT works with churches, schools and scouting organizations, among others, Rosenblum says, tailoring its program to fit the different needs of their audience. Students also learn disaster preparedness, fire suppression, search and rescue and first aid in a disaster situation.

Reality isn't pretty

Disaster psychology is also stressed, he says. What might a disaster scene look like? How will it smell and sound. The answer, of course, is not pretty. But for their last unit, students get a simulation of what they are likely to face when they respond to a disaster, and it’s as close to real as it can get. 

“We do not hold back,” Young says.

They present blood, amputations and usually fake deaths. And some students find that, maybe, they’d rather help in other ways.

Meagan Nalepa, now 16, completed the training with her Girl Scout troop. She was interested in survival and wanted to learn more. During the simulation on the last day, some of her friends balked at the scene before them.

For Nalepa, however, it was a moment in which she found she was a leader, and she stepped up. 

“It was very intense,” she says. “Most of our troop kind of backed away ... because it was too real.”

That reality for Nalepa included seeing her parents and 3 1/2- year-old niece covered in fake blood. 

“It was just shocking,” she says. But still, her training kicked in and she got to work. From that, Nalepa’s not only taken away skills she plans on continuing to develop, but a sense of her own leadership potential that she didn’t know existed.

And after she got her certificate, Nalepa turned it in at her high school, Parkway North, and now she’s implanted on the school’s emergency response team.

Another member of her troop heard screams coming from down the street and was able to help an elderly neighbor and her dog get out of the house when a fire broke out in her home. The student called 911 and suppressed the fire until first responders showed up, Rosenblum says.

“They asked her how she knew how to do that,” he says.

Highly rated program

MATC works with teens all over the region, and in 2011 was named one of the three top emergency response and preparedness programs in the nation by FEMA. FEMA has also used the program in a how-to guide for implementing youth preparedness programs. It also is the only training program that includes special-needs considerations. 

MATC doesn’t qualify for state funding, Rosenblum says, but the program is offered free of charge and the instructors volunteer their time. People participating in the classes do buy their own emergency backpacks. 

Rosenblum, who is a project manager for Charter, says the rewards with the program come when his students get excited about what they’re learning.

“It’s the coolest thing when you see a light come on,” he says, “and they’ve got it.”

So many young people have grown up in what Young calls a 911 world, where help is just a call away. But what about when it isn’t? It’s hard for kids this age to realize that they’re not invincible, she says, and that they can’t fix everything.

“We teach them a level of respect, doing what you can do, and only what you can do, and not feeling bad about it,” she says.

Will those students have to step up and help in case of emergencies? Who knows if there will be a fire, a tornado, a car accident. But that’s the point. Who knows? If it happens though, Rosenblum and Young know that they’ll use what they’ve learned in their CERT training.

Their slogan kind of sums it up.

“We’re not scared," Rosenblum says. "We’re prepared.”