VTeamer helps adults with disabilities come to the rescue

Janice McGeehan prepares students to make an emergency 911 call

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Heart Program instructor Oryonna Mason reviews the steps of calling 911 with student Jeremy Yu. Credit: Michael Tims

When Janice McGeehan, a VTeamer from Chicago, saw an opportunity in the Citizen Verizon Volunteers portal to practice 911 calls with adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, she immediately signed up. For the project, she’d work with students to prepare them on how to place a call, how to answer detailed questions and describe the emergency. McGeehan thought her experience as a social worker could come in handy. Now a contract manager in Verizon’s legal department, she previously counseled adults with mental disabilities.

VTeamer Janice McGeehan acts as a 911 operator to help adults with developmental disabilities learn what to do in an emergency.

McGeehan said she knows how nerve-wracking a 911 call can be. In college, her roommate returned from a jog, sipped some homemade celery soup and collapsed. “We didn't know what was going on,” she said. “I had to call and it's tough to answer those questions when you're really scared.” Turns out, the roommate was allergic to celery and recovered quickly.

The “Practice Calling 911” class was made possible in part by a Verizon grant to The Arc — a national organization that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Arc is also a Strategic Volunteer Partner and part of the Citizen Verizon Volunteers Program. After receiving Verizon’s “Building Community Resilience Through Inclusive Disaster Preparedness” funding, The Arc offered partner organizations money to create classes about emergency preparation.

Student Jayden Lad described a hypothetical 911 call in which his father had fallen down in the kitchen. Credit: Michael Tims

McGeehan signed up to assist the class taught by Houston’s HEART Program using the Citizen Verizon Volunteer portal. The HEART organization instructs teens and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities on life skills and launched the “Calling 911” class in response to the 2021 Texas power crisis. That experience taught many families, including ones with members who have disabilities, that they were under-prepared for emergencies.

The obstacles for adults with developmental disabilities can be significant when making a 911 call. Some of HEART’s students are concerned about talking to strangers; others have difficulty distilling the relevant facts. HEART’s students are challenged by various conditions, including autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome and epilepsy. The organization's programs teach skills to navigate a world built for neurotypical minds.

Students in the Calling 911 class learn the detailed information needed to make an emergency call. Credit: Michael Tims

In the classroom, located in the Houston Food Bank, a HEART teacher reviewed the important details a 911 operator would ask during a call — the who, what, where, when and why of an emergency. Then it was go-time: Students made mock 911 calls to practice what to do when a friend or family member needs emergency help.

Via Zoom, McGeehan and another VTeamer acted as the operators: “911, what is the location of your emergency?” asked McGeehan. A 911 operator wrote the script McGeehan followed so the experience would be as authentic as possible.

Student Warren Petit works through his answers during a mock 911 call alongside HEART Program intern Nora Mohamed. Credit: Michael Tims

Each of the series’ four classes focuses on responding to a specific, relevant scenario such as what to say if you’re riding the school bus and the driver gets into an accident. This week’s call highlighted what to do if someone fell and hurt themself.

Student Dylan Alexander gave a carefully considered answer. He imagined a friend had fallen on the roof of the building: “He’s breathing, but there’s blood on top of the glass window.”

To help students learn to make emergency calls independently, McGeehan said she holds back from coaching them. “I let them puzzle through it, because that's the part that's crucial,” she explained. “They’re getting used to stretching that muscle a bit, pushing themselves a little bit to make sure they’re understood by the operator.”

Student Jayden Lad practiced by imagining his father passed out on the kitchen floor. Successfully completing the call, Lad said, “made me happy this time.” Many of his classmates echoed his sentiment and said they would now feel more comfortable calling 911 in an emergency.

911 Teachers and students (l to r): Nora Mohamed, Joshua Williams, Jeremy Yu, Dylan Alexander, Warren Petit, Noah Alexander, Jayden Lad and Oryonna Mason. Credit: Michael Tims

McGeehan thinks the experience helped her grow, and she could hear the students become more comfortable with 911 calls each week. “I have a positive feeling that if there were an emergency, the students know how to call and the information they relay will be very useful,” she said.

Janice McGeehan encourages other VTeamers to look through the Citizen Verizon Volunteers Portal and to consider joining The Arc’s community to find similar opportunities to help.

"It's tough to answer those questions when you're really scared."

VTeamer Janice McGeehan

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