As of late June, Clay County, West Virginia, had 10 COVID-19 cases: eight recovered, and one death among its 9,000 residents. The county’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Executive Director Aiden Taylor notes his team’s prevention work for ensuring these numbers are not higher. They helped coordinate making and donating more than 1,000 face coverings. The team also set up a hotline for seniors to call if they need food, have questions, or need someone to check on their well-being.
Taylor founded the Clay County CERT in 2019 and has been busy training and directing the team’s 15 members and dozens of community volunteers ever since. He’s also been busy taking Advanced Placement tests and solving algebra equations, as Taylor is just 16 years old and a rising junior in high school.
Teen and adult CERT members around the country continue to help during the pandemic, from making food deliveries to helping the homeless. The CERT program educates volunteers about preparing for hazards that may affect their area. It also trains members in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, search and rescue, team organization, and helping with medical needs. FEMA’s Individual and Community Preparedness Division creates programs, training, and tools to help CERT members be ready when disaster strikes.
Teens Take the Lead
Taylor said he founded the Clay County CERT because he has wanted to be a doctor since he was 2 years old. He plans to pursue emergency medicine as a career. The CERT program was one of the few emergency response programs he found that allowed youth to take part, and he jumped in.
“I saw a gap in our community’s needs and knew that, despite my age, I could help,” he said.
Before the virus struck, his CERT members worked to organize a cadre of local volunteers that could help respond to emergencies.
“We are at a disadvantage because we are a small, underfunded county. So, we’re not just doing disaster response and training. We now have a whole division of community educators, first responders, and public health officials who can help. I think that’s been key to COVID-19 prevention here,” he said.
Teens are also at the forefront of aid in Cape Fear, NC. Melode Dickerson began a Teen CERT in February, just before coronavirus began to sweep across the country. She thought that the members would be helping to set up first aid tents and supporting traffic control at parades and summer concerts. Training for hurricane response in the coastal community was also on the agenda.
Instead, her six-member team is busy setting up food distribution sites for those who have lost their jobs and directing traffic for them. The team helped package hundreds of spaghetti dinners donated by a restaurant and aided in distributing food to military members and veterans on Memorial Day.
“This is part of what we teach them. When things like a disaster happen, you change up your mission and go where you are needed,” Dickerson said. “It’s good to show them how things can change dramatically so quickly. It’s something they need to be prepared for throughout their lives.”
Responding to COVID-19 from Big Cities to Small Towns
With more than 200,000 COVID-19 cases in New York City, the city’s CERT has many opportunities to pitch in. One of its main activities is working with the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association and church volunteers to deliver food. Each Saturday, between 160 and 200 food deliveries are made directly to residents’ apartment doors on this narrow island in the East River. Team members knock on doors, step back to maintain distance, and wait to make sure the food is picked up.
The CERT also supports many other activities, including working with the Department of Aging to ensure COVID-19 guidance is available at senior centers. Other activities include distributing and tracking sanitation supplies at childcare centers. They also help run pop-up food distribution centers for residents of New York City Housing Authority apartments.
“The most rewarding aspect of the CERT response to COVID-19 for me has been the impact our volunteers are making on the community. We are showing true strength and support citywide,” said Eddy Sanchez, coordinator of the New York City CERT.
On the other side of the country in Washington state, CERTs in the Pacific Coast towns of Ocean Shores, Taholah, and Queets are delivering food and safety information to homes. Teams in nearby North Beach help with traffic control and registration at COVID-19 test sites.
The CERT in the city of Shoreline, near Seattle, has staffed a COVID-19 screening table at a shower facility for the homeless at the city’s recreation center. Volunteers take temperatures and ask about clients’ health. Because many team members are going back to work, the CERT is now focusing its efforts on delivering food to residents in need.
“The most rewarding part for me has been seeing the joy that our team has gotten out of fulfilling that mission. The team has expressed the same sentiment. One team member told me that it was nice to feel like a part of the solution. Another team member expressed a feeling of validation,” said Jason McMillan, the city’s emergency manager and CERT director.
“The COVID pandemic has given us a chance to show the flexibility of the CERT team. It’s not just about search and rescue or providing first aid after a disaster. It is about providing service to the community whenever they are needed.”
Becoming a citizen responder and joining a local CERT is a great way to stay involved and connected with your community. The stories above highlight how neighbors can help neighbors during difficult times. FEMA is proud to continue working hand in hand with CERTs across the country to offer tools, resources, and training curriculum that allow volunteers to safely and effectively strengthen their communities.
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This article first appeared in the monthly Individual and Community Preparedness Newsletter. Subscribe here.