Inspiring youth to make a difference

A non-profit School Emergency Response Coalition is equipping students with life-saving emergency response training and equipment


When Kevin McGraw’s 30-plus year career in emergency services was leading him toward retirement, he was bothered by a couple of things. Who among the youth of today, he wondered, would step in for the many people like him preparing to hand over the emergency vehicle keys? And shouldn’t AEDS be more widely available, along with CPR training?

So, he decided to build a solution.

The School Emergency Response Coalition (SERC) is a non-profit organization founded by McGraw, an EMT and former firefighter, with two goals. One was to deliver AEDs to places in need, especially schools. Another was to focus on teaching life-saving skills to young people, while also introducing the idea of a career in emergency response.

The School Emergency Response Coalition's Career Day. (Courtesy photo)
The School Emergency Response Coalition's Career Day. (Courtesy photo)

Since its inception in 2015, McGraw and an all-volunteer instruction staff has engaged with students at numerous middle and high schools in western Michigan. The two-day program, which has reached about 1,000 students per year, is called “Students United Prepared Emergency Responders CPR & AED” or, SUPER-CPR&AED.

Part of McGraw’s message sets a clear, welcoming tone: the program is a safe, all-inclusive space where there’s no bullying and everyone is important.

Part of the group's focus is devoted to addressing emergencies and what students can do to summon help, provide basic first aid and render CPR or AED assistance. (Courtesy photo)
Part of the group's focus is devoted to addressing emergencies and what students can do to summon help, provide basic first aid and render CPR or AED assistance. (Courtesy photo)

In the pilot program in spring, 2015, the entire freshman class at Ottawa Hills High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, participated. The students’ health and PE teacher Charis Larson, noted, “I could tell the instructors cared deeply. They had all the equipment, which was good because our resources are limited. They took their time and were always prepared.”

Day one is devoted to addressing emergencies and what students can do to summon help, provide basic first aid, and render CPR or AED assistance as needed. Small groups ensure plenty of opportunity to practice.

On day two, the students practice again before being tested for certification with the American Health Safety Institute. They also visit one-on-one with uniformed law enforcement, EMS, fire personnel and emergency dispatchers. It’s a chance for them to imagine the possibility of a public safety career path. Maybe, hopes McGraw, some will go on to fill emergency ranks increasingly depleted by retirement.

SERC recently added the Grand Rapids K9 Unit to the career opportunities roster. “I could see the students thinking, ‘you mean I can be a police officer and play with a dog all day long?’” said Grand Rapids Fire Department Captain Mark Fankhauser, who has taught with SERC since its inception and chairs its board of directors.

Part of the School Emergency Response Coalition's Career Day includes working with a K9 unit. (Courtesy Photo)
Part of the School Emergency Response Coalition's Career Day includes working with a K9 unit. (Courtesy Photo)

Students put emergency response training into action

The role modeling has paid off; several former students are now considering public service or healthcare careers.

Sometimes their new knowledge has led to direct results. Five weeks after SUPER-CPR&AED training in 2018 at Lee Middle School in Grand Rapids, two eighth-graders were leaving the lunchroom when one suddenly realized the other was choking on his last rushed bite of burger. Arturo Fierros delivered the Heimlich maneuver on his friend and popped the obstruction. Without a fuss, they headed off to class once they realized all was well, leaving the astonished lunchroom staff to report the save. Fierros later received a life-saver award from the American Heart Association for his quick actions.

The following November, some of the students witnessed the collapse of a popular Lee High School history teacher and football coach in his classroom. They placed him on the floor, activated an emergency response, retrieved the AED and escorted arriving professionals to the classroom. He survived his cardiac arrest and was able to return to work, thanks to their quick actions.

Another Lee Middle School history teacher, Mark Donovan, once wondered when he’d ever use CPR when he first learned it during parenting classes with his wife. Later, hearing from students about times they wished they’d known more about how to handle emergencies, he vowed to find a way to teach CPR to everyone in the 8th grade. His efforts led him to McGraw, and a position as a SERC volunteer. It was all worthwhile, he said, when he learned that the football coach, a close friend and longtime colleague of his, had received care from some of the students he taught in the SERC program. 

So far, according to McGraw, at least six lives have been saved by SERC-trained people. Not bad, for a group fueled largely by passion and heart. “No one person does a save on their own,” said Donovan. “They’re all part of the process, and if you’re part of the process, you’re part of the save. You did something to help.”

Starting an AED distribution, student training program

When McGraw was formulating his idea in 2015, he used a $5,000 bonus from an hourly incentive program at his job at Amway Corporation to properly draft SERC’s non-profit papers. Later that year, he received a $26,500 grant from Amway Corp. that enabled the purchase of his first 13 AEDs to give away, and also enough CPR training equipment and mannikins to start the SUPER-CPR&AED classes.

By 2020, a new initiative, the “12x12 Campaign,” was already delivering one AED every month to a school, community setting, or other public place that didn’t have one, focusing on rural areas. The program was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the campaign will be rebooted once things re-normalize. The AEDs are purchased from funds generated by donations and grants. McGraw credits many program partners, including several local family foundations in western Michigan, for stepping up to help.

SERC was honored in May, 2019, with the “Connecting With Community” Award from WOOD-TV8 which recognizes programs working to make a difference. Such citations, while gratifying, aren’t what fuels McGraw. “It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the kids, and the kids are the ones saving lives.”

The group receiving its "Connecting With Community" award from WOOD-TV8. (Courtesy photo)
The group receiving its "Connecting With Community" award from WOOD-TV8. (Courtesy photo)

McGraw would like to see the program replicated elsewhere. A program like this, he says, is especially timely in the wake of Public Act 388 of 2016 that made Michigan the 34th state to require CPR and AED training of high school graduates. According to Fankhauser, a query to develop a similar program in South Carolina is already pending.

“The pilot program has blossomed from the inner city throughout western Michigan – it’s a grassroots thing,” said McGraw. If a program like this could benefit your local community, McGraw wants to hear from you. All it really requires is someone with the passion to make a difference. For more information, see the SERC website (development and maintenance donated by LaFleur Marketing).

Read next: Why early exposure to EMS is key to driving interest, improving recruitment

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