Redefining the Classroom

FEMA honors LSSU Upward Bound for work with emergency preparedness

Posted: June 14th, 2014

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. –Lake Superior State University’s Upward Bound program is continuing to earn accolades from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its work with the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

This month, FEMA named Sault Area High School student and Upward Bound participant Isaiah Garcia as the Michigan representative of its National Youth Preparedness Council, which was formed in 2012 to bring together youth leaders from across the country who are interested in advocating on behalf of youth preparedness and making a difference in their communities. Garcia will be representing FEMA Region V, which includes all of Michigan and nine other states.

Council members complete a self-selected legacy project during their terms on the council and participate in a Youth Preparedness Council Summit, where they share their ideas, opinions and questions about youth disaster preparedness with the leadership of national organizations working on this critical priority. Throughout their terms, members meet with FEMA to provide input on strategies, initiatives and projects. Isaiah and his mother, Jessica Garcia, as a parent/chaperone, will be traveling to Washington, D.C. in July for his first meeting.

REPRESENTING LSSU -- Isaiah Garcia, the newest member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Youth Preparedness Council, demonstrates the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED), one of several pieces of equipment that he and fellow members of LSSU Upward Bound's Community Emergency Response Team are skilled at using. Garcia, who attends Sault Area High School and is an LSSU Upward Bound student, will be representing Michigan and nine other states on the FEMA panel. Looking on are his mother, Jessica, and LSSU alumna and CERT member Mary Witucki. (LSSU Photo by Kati Doty)

The Council supports FEMA’s commitment to involving youth in preparedness-related activities, and provides an avenue to engage youth population, taking into account their perspectives, feedback and opinions. In its second year, interest in the Youth Preparedness Council has increased based on the number of applications received this year for the five seats available. Garcia and the other new members of the council were selected based on their dedication to public service, efforts in making a difference in their community, and their potential to expand their impact as a national advocate for youth preparedness.

Garcia is part of the LSSU Upward Bound CERT chapter, which was nominated as a FEMA Outstanding Team in 2013, when Garcia was also named the Outstanding Teen CERT member for Michigan and Heidi Witucki, director of LSSU Upward Bound, was awarded honorable mention by FEMA as a Community Preparedness Hero for her work with the team. She has been overseeing the team with LSSU Public Safety Officer Kevin Chamberlain since 2008, when the two started CERT at LSSU.

The CERT concept was developed and implemented by the Los Angeles City Fire Department in 1985 in response to the need for training civilians to meet the immediate needs of responding to disasters. The idea is that citizens sometimes must rely on each other for help in order to meet their immediate life-saving and life-sustaining needs. CERT trains those citizens how to respond. At LSSU, not only does the program train students, but it provides the Upward Bound participants with meaningful community service.

“CERT gives these kids real-life applications for everything they are learning in school,” Witucki said. “They train to help first responders in a variety of capacities -- logistics, communications, planning, operations, and finance/administration. During training in search and rescue, they see the value of physics in learning to use cribbing to lift heavy objects off victims. In training to set up emergency triage sites and shelters, they learn the importance of communications and tracking resources used so that the municipality can be reimbursed. CERT is valuable for every career field and it gives kids the answer to that age-old question, ‘When am I ever going to have to use this stuff I'm learning in school?’”

“Community and individual preparedness isn’t just important, it’s a necessity,” said Garcia. “The fact that a disaster could strike at any moment is great -- safety should be first in one's home and community. After all, a chain is a strong as its weakest link. It’s up to us to decide how weak that link is.

“Going through the training and having these experiences has opened my eyes,” he continued. “As much as we might want it to be, the world isn't perfect and isn't fully safe. At first, I only wanted to use this knowledge to protect my family, but I now realize that the knowledge I have can keep others safe, as well. Knowledge is power; this power can ultimately change the world or even save one's life. I'm willing to answer that call.”

Witucki said LSSU’s Upward Bound CERT is remarkable not just for its accomplishments, but for the fact that it is a young group. She said she believes it is the only teen team in Michigan.

“Despite being ‘kids,’ they train with adults, many of whom are fire fighters, EMTs, county emergency managers and law enforcement officers,” Witucki said, adding that the professionals in the field have noted that the kids are every bit as mature and competent as the adults.

“We have big expectations of the students who participate in Upward Bound, and huge expectations of the members of the LSSU/UB CERT. With every activity and training exercise, they not only meet those high expectations, they consistently exceed them. What started as an experiment has turned into proof that ‘kids’ can take on significant responsibilities and rise to challenges that many adults would be unwilling to tackle.

Witucki said the students put in a minimum of 30 hours of basic training and then must continue training in First Aid, CPR, AED operation and more. Last winter, they completed two-and-a-half days of winter survival training at Camp Grayling.

“The kids are what make this program special,” she said. “It is nothing without them.”

For more information on the LSSU Upward Bound CERT program, contact Witucki at 906-635-2590. -LSSU-

CONTACT: Tom Pink, 906-635-2315,; John Shibley, 635-2314,; Heidi Witucki, Upward Bound, 635-2190,