CENTRAL FALLS — “Resilient” is the word teacher Robert A. Scappini uses to describe his students at Central Falls High School.
For the past 23 years, Scappini has been teaching kids in this working-class community, including many who have come from war-torn countries.
He’s also training some of those kids as members of an elite squad of emergency first responders as part of the Central Falls High School Emergency Response Team (SERT).
Recently, the city experienced severe financial shortfalls, and all public services were cut in half. During that time, the town had two hurricanes and two blizzards.
Scappini, a history teacher, found that his “resilient” students were more than willing to step up.
“What was obvious was that we needed to organize a group of students to work with first responders for man-made and natural disasters,” he says.
As SERT members, the students have undergone dozens of hours of training from FEMA, the Red Cross, and even the U.S. Navy, and are ready for man-made and natural disasters.
Given the lack of funding for public services, and a highly multicultural student population in the school (his students are fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, Cabo Verde, and Swahili), Scappini created his team to work directly with first responders, securing partnership from volunteers from the Rhode Island National Guard and local reservists.
The students were inducted by the Red Cross back in April as official members of the Student Emergency Response Team (SERT).
“We’re the first in the state as a school emergency response team,” says Scappini, adding that the program is “groundbreaking” because it is the first of its kind in the eastern United States to enlist students.
Scappini said the students, who span grades 9 through 11, are all volunteers who are being trained as first responders in emergencies and disasters that may happen in the school or the community
Earlier this summer, the state formally recognized the 18 teens as an emergency response unit, ready to deploy as needed for mass casualty evacuation, search and rescue, fire suppression, triage, battlefield medical care, disaster food handling and shelter management. During the summer they underwent formal training, provided by the Red Cross of Rhode Island at the R.I. Army National Guard’s Camp Fogarty.
Participating students are Jessie Barrios, Erika Botelho, Katherine Carrillo, Pedro Cabral, Abigal Chacon, Devin Chamberland, Sabrina Gonzalez, Melanie Hernandez, Nathalia Gomez, Jose Medina, Mercedes Peters, Abigal Reyes, Angelica Ruiz, Agatha Vargas, Sebastian Zuleta, Jailene Lozano, Helaryn Hernandez and Alexis Dominguez.
On Saturday Sept. 7, the students will host a disaster drill for the community, representatives from other schools, the Emergency Management Agency of R.I., and the Medical Reserve Corps. As the first of its kind in New England, Central Falls SERT will use this demonstration to begin rolling out the program in other schools across the state and region.
Recently, SERT was awarded $1,000 from the Pollination Project, which gives small grants to individuals making a difference in the world, to purchase equipment like ropes, gloves, flashlights, radios, headlamps, ponchos and medical kits.
Scappini noted that, beyond this valuable level of training, many of the students are bilingual and speak Spanish, Creole and Portuguese, something that could prove especially helpful to local public safety officials in the event of a disaster or emergency. This could mean anything from natural occurrences, such as extreme flooding or snowstorms, to medical events such as the H1N1 flu inoculation clinics.
“These kids could bridge the gap between the first responders in the community,” he noted.
Scappini said he got the idea for starting a SERT after reading an article about Civilian Emergency Response Teams. Such teams, with adult volunteers, were first organized in Los Angeles in 1985 and are found in 50 states. He put out a flier in the school and was surprised by the number of students who were interested and began attending the weekly after-school meetings.
“I can’t tell you the enthusiasm they have shown for this,” said Scappini, who said he envisions the program’s expansion this school year and beyond. “These are a fantastic bunch of kids who have shown dedication and compassion to this program.”