Island’s youth programs, preschools prepare for emergencies

“The more people are ready, the more people we can help.”

The Vashon Early Learning Coalition used funds from a Best Starts for Kids grant to purchase supplies for a go-kit, ranging from children’s dust masks to snap lights and mylar blankets (Joanne Jewell Photo).

The Vashon Early Learning Coalition used funds from a Best Starts for Kids grant to purchase supplies for a go-kit, ranging from children’s dust masks to snap lights and mylar blankets (Joanne Jewell Photo).

In the event of an emergency, the Vashon Early Learning Coalition (VELC) is making sure that the island’s youngest children, and their caregivers, can be ready.

It’s part of an effort to shore up preschools and summer camps with preparedness plans in 2019, supported by a collaboration between VELC and VashonBePrepared. Their goal is to equip more island preschools with necessary supplies should families be separated after an emergency, and for everyone to know how to get out of harm’s way, where to go and what to do.

Joanne Jewell, VELC program assistant and instructor at the Plum Forest Farm Heartstone School and Summer Camp, said she was stumped by a question from a parent last year: What was the plan in the event of a natural disaster?

“That doesn’t come to the top of the list,” she said. “You’re more dealing with the day to day, getting the snacks out and just making sure the kids have a healthy place to play.”

Jewell said she realized that devising a plan — with updated family emergency contacts and prospective evacuation routes to alternative shelter — was a worthy cause. According to Jewell, it’s a reality of living on the island.

“If there’s some kind of emergency, we’re kind of alone on Vashon,” she said. “For the emergency responders, it’s going to be a pretty long time for them to come help us.”

VELC is an island network of early childcare providers; Jewell said the group aims to help children on Vashon succeed and thrive in safe environments. Their work is supported by a $100,000 grant that was awarded to Vashon Youth & Family Services in May of 2017 by the King County Best Starts for Kids program.

As program assistant, Jewell said she began consulting with islanders Vicky de Monterey Richoux and Rick Wallace of VashonBePrepared after their organization held several emergency resiliency meetings with island nonprofits in 2018. At the time, de Monterey Richoux and Wallace had launched a new public awareness campaign in partnership with Voice of Vashon. The ongoing campaign is meant to help island organizations and households prepare for the fallout after events that could paralyze the island, from last week’s crippling snowstorms to long-term power outages or an earthquake.

Last fall, VELC and VashonBePrepared began soliciting island preschool directors to create tailored emergency plans in response to different scenarios, based on a template provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Two school directors have participated so far — Anna Sander of Honeybee Playschool, and Stacy Hinden of the Vashon Wilderness Program. Both have widely different arrangements and needs; Honeybee, with eight children enrolled, is run out of Sander’s home. The Wilderness Program is entirely outdoors, enrolls up to 50 children and is staffed by eight counselors.

“We pitched to teachers that the parents are very pleased to know that you have an emergency preparedness plan, so it’s kind of a selling point for their school,” said Jewell. “We think that parents would like to know about it.”

Funds from the Best Starts grant were used to purchase supplies for a go-kit reserved for each student, ranging from children’s dust masks to snap lights and mylar blankets. A standardized list was sent to families recommending that additional items be included, namely bottles of water, snacks, medications in childproof containers and laminated photos of parents or guardians.

To Wallace, who also manages the Vashon Emergency Operation Center, preparedness means planning for all potential hazards.

“What we know is, the more people are ready, the more people we can help,” he said. “If a family, a neighbor, an organization can be ready to take care of themselves, that’s just a bunch of people that we don’t have to worry about initially when an emergency happens. We know there are limited resources on the island in the case of a bad situation.”

General readiness — and self-empowerment — is the message he said VashonBePrepared conveys to islanders the most in advance of a major emergency. According to Wallace, for daycares and preschools, their most basic needs are essentially the same no matter how different their programs may be: a capability to shelter in place for a length of time, access to heat sources, food and water, and a strategy for reuniting families.

“It’s only natural we would especially want to help organizations taking care of one of the most precious things on the island — the children,” he said.

De Monterey Richoux, the president of VashonBePrepared, is conceiving a tabletop exercise to test the preschool emergency plans and directors themselves later this year. She said that with Jewell and Wallace, they hope to work with three more preschools this year and help them create emergency plans as well.

“Having any of that stuff organized in advance makes you more likely to stay safe and comfortable and keep your family more safe and comfortable during a disaster,” she said, echoing Wallace about readiness. “If you are preparing yourself or a group, [whether] for a winter storm or power outage, or any kind of frequently occurring event, you’re well on your way to being prepared.”

In the spring, Hinden and her staff at the Vashon Wilderness Program will complete a live drill to put their emergency preparedness to the test. She said the program was already halfway there in terms of the staff’s ability to respond to adverse situations. Instructors are familiar with first aid, use radios to communicate, and can perform CPR. She added that some have additional certifications like wilderness first aid or are wilderness first responders. But having a plan between staff and parents, she said, means taking even fewer chances — and that the program is all the better for it.

Staff at the wilderness program collected additional emergency contact information from families — backups of backups of people to call, said Hinden. In addition, the staff’s communication protocols were updated. One staff member was originally trained to use a ham radio, but now the program’s field director will also be able to operate it.

“One of the things that we do teach in terms of nature connection is survival skills,” she said. “[But now] we’re more aware and more ready to work with a real emergency.”

Hinden noted that it was one thing to prepare for outright disaster — but something else entirely to live it. She said she encouraged islanders to think about their own situation.

“With just a little bit of forethought and a little bit of planning, it can make a difference.”

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