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Are you more impactful than a 5th grader?

Release date: 
January 31, 2019
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Math Career Carnival shows Nacogdoches students they can make a difference

AUSTIN, Texas — Getting 5th graders interested in math can be hard. At the recent Central Heights Elementary School Math Career Carnival, student-teachers from Stephen F. Austin State University tried games, art, prizes and other techniques. But it was the thrill of helping their community that captured kids’ imaginations.


“The [other booths] had all these really clever ways of making learning fun, so I just knew those were going to be the fun booths. But no,” said FEMA’s Elizabeth Redfearn, who helped present disaster-response scenarios to the 5th graders. “I was really stunned at how excited they became about, ‘I want to do another mission.’ They were just gripped by the need [for help].”


Redfearn’s daughter Caitlyn Denning was one of the student-teachers who needed to find career-related scenarios to teach algebraic reasoning. Thinking back to her own childhood, she knew disaster-response operations could grab kids’ attention.


“I remember when Katrina hit … I got to sit in on a [FEMA] meeting about the housing situation when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and I was very intrigued and impassioned by what was going on,” she said. “I’ve always been very inspired by the job my mom does.”


When students approached Denning’s booth at Central Heights in Nacogdoches, Texas, they could feel her passion for helping people affected by a disaster.


“Hey, are you here to help with disaster-recovery efforts?” she’d ask them. “Which team do you want to be on?”


When presented with math problems related to Hurricane Harvey, the 2017 California wildfires and last year’s Kilauea volcanic eruption in Hawaii, many students were drawn to the incident that hit close to home.


“Almost every single student knew someone — a family member or someone that was close to them — who was impacted by Harvey,” Denning said, noting Nacogdoches is about two hours north of heavily impacted Houston. “They were very sympathetic. It was very personal to them.”


But even after figuring out how many meals, emergency kits and hotel rooms Harvey survivors needed, students were still excited to learn about emergency response: The 5th graders only had to complete one FEMA-related mission, but the booth saw many repeat volunteers. 


“A lot of them would do the [required] mission, then go to all the other booths and come back to do our other two missions,” Denning said. “Their pencils were smoking, they were writing so fast. They had their game faces on … and such enthusiasm and energy for what we were doing.”


Redfearn, a supervisor in the FEMA Region 6 Individual Assistance (IA) Branch who is temporarily serving as the IA Branch director for Hurricane Harvey recovery, said the students felt empowered by the disaster-response exercises, realizing they could already make a difference at their young age.         


“I saw children rise to the forefront and become the planners. They were like, ‘We can call FEMA if we need to, but first we need to ask ourselves what we can do, then we need to call 911,’” said Redfearn, a FEMA employee since 1991. “They understood, ‘I can be a leader in my own community, and in particular in my own home.’”


Children, for example, can prepare emergency kits, map evacuation routes, learn first aid skills and tell their parents about flood insurance. They can also participate in FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Programs, found at


“Kids were leaving the carnival feeling like, ‘I’m not going to be a seamstress tomorrow, I’m not going to sell real estate or be an auto mechanic,’” Redfearn said, referencing some of the other career booths, “‘but I can already start helping my community.’”


Denning, who is in her senior year at Stephen F. Austin, said she hopes to bring FEMA into the classroom more in the future. The Central Heights students recognized the importance of disaster response, she said, which helped the FEMA-themed booth earn Central Heights administrators’ top award among the 25 to 30 booths.


“The students thought it was so amazing that they got to talk to an actual FEMA rep,” Denning said. “They want to know about FEMA and the kind of work FEMA does. They think it’s just incredible.


“FEMA has an impact not just on communities,” she added, “but also inspiring young people and children to know that even the smallest things they do can make a big impact on the people around them.”


For additional information on Hurricane Harvey and Texas recovery, visit the Hurricane Harvey disaster web page at, Facebook at, the FEMA Region 6 Twitter account at or the Texas Division of Emergency Management website at

Last Updated: 
January 31, 2019 - 17:32