CAMP DOUGLAS, Wis. — Summer camp can be a life-changing experience, and at Wisconsin’s READY Camp at Volk Field near Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, the connection is being made to prepare youth for their futures.
READY Camp (Responding to Emergencies and Disasters with Youth) welcomes campers ages 11–18 to learn about emergency preparedness up close. The goal is to have their camp experience carry well beyond their weeklong stay.
“These children learn what to do and how to take care of themselves and others if there is an emergency in their home, school, or community,” said READY Camp Director Mary Jean Erschen-Cooke, MS, BSN, RN. “They learn from the emergency professionals themselves about their careers. In return, we’ve seen campers increase their volunteer efforts in their community and it sets them up to have a positive school and community relationship.”
The camp was held this year at Wisconsin’s Regional Emergency All-Climate Training (REACT) Center at Volk Field. The REACT Center is one of the premier training and exercise facilities for emergency and disaster response in the country.
Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) Administrator Dr. Darrell Williams visited READY Camp to get a glimpse of what campers are learning and to encourage them along the way. Knowing firsthand about disasters and emergencies himself, Williams spoke to the children about why this camp comes at the right time in their lives.
“A lot of time people think only the adults can make a difference; emergencies happen to children too,” Williams said. “Children can make a difference if they are prepared, and they can respond to the situation. It can mean the difference between life and death.”
READY Camp plays an important role in shedding light on a career path that’s needed in every community. Organizers of the annual camp say it’s important that youth consider public safety careers early on in their lives.
“Recruitment [and] retention is absolutely an effort needing to be taking place with volunteers, with all the fire and EMS and other first responders,” said Camp Douglas Fire Chief James Newlun. “This is a great way to introduce kids to the basics of fire, EMS and CPR. It gives campers a feel for what this field is like.”
Newlun understands the impact READY Camp can make and how it can change a child’s trajectory in life.
“I grew up next door to a firefighter whom I idolized,” Newlun said. “As a child, my eyes were opened to what I could do for my community, and I have the opportunity to share that message with the next generation today.”
This year, a Girl Scout Troop from San Diego attended the camp. They were particularly interested in an exercise where a building had collapsed, as instructors reminded them it could happen after an earthquake.
“As a Girl Scout, this is such a unique thing to do,” said 14-year-old Grace Fullerton. “I like that it’s in-depth and focused on the emergency response aspect. And being ready and prepared is much of what the Girl Scouts stand for so it’s really important to do this.”
Campers also watched an elaborate practice aircraft emergency response. This training is ongoing at the REACT Center, and has involved the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and civilian first responders.
“This is the most realistic way we can practice an aircraft emergency response,” said Volk Field Installation Fire Chief David Ferris. “What campers are seeing is as close to what an actual response will look like.”
Campers saw the training that first responders receive at the REACT Center, which they say is critical to prepare for real-world emergencies.
“The first time you see an aircraft emergency response shouldn’t be the day that the accident happens,” Ferris said. “This allows us to prepare the responders for that worst day. They can come and see what it’s like, and get them into the right headspace to respond to something like this.”
The demonstrations at the REACT Center provide a unique opportunity for campers to be exposed to life outside the classroom, but the potential for internal growth and change may well define the camp’s success.
“I have learned so much from the demonstrations at READY Camp, but I’ve also learned more about myself,” said five-time camper Haily Dudzinski, 18, of Elroy, Wisconsin. “By learning how to lead during disasters, I am more confident in myself. I used to be so shy, but now I’ve learned to lead.”
Dudzinski is considered a camp success. A member of FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Council, she’s heading to Texas next spring to learn emergency administration planning.
“It’s because of this camp that I want a career in emergency management,” Dudzinski said.
Knowing that a camp experience can make a huge impact on a young person demonstrates that learning from the best can make a camper the best.
“Sending our READY campers out there with the wherewithal to handle difficult situations, and to be leaders through it, is what this camp is all about,” Erschen-Cooke said. “That’s why we’re here, and that’s thanks enough.”