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Wisconsin READY Camp empowers
Youth to be more resilient in emergencies

CAMP DOUGLAS — Inch by inch, a group of teens pulled and raised a body from the top of a building. A few yards away, another group of aspiring first responders helped firefighters prop up a vehicle on its side. These skills were just some of the lessons kids from around the country learned at the Responding to Emergencies and Disasters with Youth (READY) Camp, held this month at Wisconsin Emergency Management’s Regional Emergency All-Climate Training Center in Camp Douglas.

“READY Camp can help people in your community because if you learn first aid, CPR, and Stop the Bleed, you can save lives where you live,” said camper Rayann Conner.

Some of the campers, like Rayann, return each year. The Texas teen has already taken a lesson learned at the camp to teach to fellow 4-H members back at home.

“I did a teddy bear triage unit with the 4-H chapter, which was the first time they did something like that,” said Conner. “It was stressful at first, and as the kids figured out what to do, it went a lot easier and quicker. I had a lot of fun doing it.”

This is the third time the 15-year-old has been at READY Camp. Her experience inspired her younger sister to try the camp for the first time this year.

“I always wanted to be an emergency person, so I thought I would give it a try,” said Hannah Conner. “We learned ‘Stop the Bleed’ and I now want to become an Emergency Medical Technician on an ambulance.”

Stop the Bleed is a nationwide program that encourages bystanders to be trained, equipped, and empowered to help control bleeding during emergencies before professional help arrives.

She was not the only first-time camper at READY Camp this year. Cody Von Neupert wanted to attend because his father was an intensive care unit nurse.   

“They have everything - firefighting, EMS, and everything else mixed in,” said the Stockbridge, Wisconsin teen. “I liked everything we learned and how much they can do here.”

READY Camp’s theme this year was “Empowering Youth,” and was tied into community service projects done by the campers to spread preparedness where they live. Von Neupert hopes to improve his school’s “Sources of Strength” program. The initiative focuses on suicide, substance abuse, and violence prevention.

“It’s a good program, but I want it to be a little better,” said Von Neupert. “I want to offer it after school and have more opportunities for students to be a part of the program.”

Responding to Emergencies and Disasters with Youth Wisconsin, known as R.E.A.D.Y. Wisconsin, has been hosting this camp for 17 years. During one week in July, youth from Wisconsin and other states arrive in Wisconsin to learn and retain emergency skills.

“I believe when we are working with the youth, they are very powerful, and they really are our future,” said Mary Jean Erschen-Cooke, Executive Director of READY Camp and Nursing Professional Development Specialist for UW Health Kids. “By teaching these skills we are really investing in the future. We know they are going to succeed, and I am truly honored to work with them.”

Erschen-Cooke is one of READY Camp’s founders and has been running it since its inception in 2005. She said it began as a vision to train youth to respond to emergencies and disasters. Its goal: No matter what happened, someone would be able to provide bystander care and know what to do in those situations.

Over the years, more than 5,000 kids have gone through READY Camp, which has been hosted at sites throughout Wisconsin. Some of the campers have turned the skills they learned into careers.

“The most rewarding part for me is when I hear back how the campers have utilized the skills they learned throughout READY Camp,” said Erschen-Cooke. “It’s been great to see the success of previous campers. One is now a pediatric nurse in Wisconsin, another is an emergency physician in New York, and another is now a full-time firefighter in Oconto.”

While hosted by R.E.A.D.Y., Members of Wisconsin Emergency Management staff assist with the camp and help teach essential skills to campers.

“Opportunities such as this are a great way to help prepare the next generation of first responders and other emergency management workers,” said WEM Acting Administrator Greg Engle. “WEM is proud to continue supporting READY Camp and its mission of educating and empowering youth to be prepared.”

Many campers also return to share their skills with younger students, such as 17-year-old Jordyn Czyzewski who is spending her second year as a camp counselor.

“I love coming back, and recertifying myself in first aid, CPR, and AED skills,” said Czyzewski. “As a counselor, I’m able to transfer the skills I learned at READY Camp and see campers grow from year to year when they come back as advanced campers. Even Monday to Friday, there’s a lot of growth that happens.”

She said the camp prepares youth to be confident and prepared if something happens in their communities. As the incoming University of Wisconsin-Madison freshman looked out at the younger campers exploring a UW Health MedFlight helicopter and learning from the crew, she said the camp is an incredible experience. Even though she wants to major in environmental sciences, she is taking the skills learned at READY camp with her.

“Take the risk, come next year if you are able to,” said Czyzewski. “It’s so much fun, you learn an incredible amount, and you meet so many incredible people that offer so many opportunities. You might find something that you didn’t even know you were interested in could become a career for you. Even if you don’t go into emergency services, READY Camp will help you be prepared and confident in any emergency situation.”

READY Camp is based off FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team initiative. It takes those lessons and makes them activity-based to help youth retain knowledge.  

“All youth should learn these skills and it helps them to be more resilient and know what to do,” said Erschen-Cooke. “You never know what will happen. If we keep training them, eventually everyone will know what to do in an emergency.