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Senior serves as Red Cross translator

Savannah Booké goes with caseworkers to disaster sites to help victims who speak Spanish

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  • Meet Savannah Booke’

    School: Monroe High

    Age: 18

    From: California; moved to North Carolina at age 12.

    Hobbies: Volleyball.

    Go-to app on her phone: Pandora radio.

    Favorite Chilean dish: Pastel de papas (a potato pie).

    Favorite school-day breakfast: French toast sticks at school.

    Next travel destination: Hoping to go to Spain this summer.

    Goal with Red Cross: “I really want to be able to perform CPR and save someone using it. That would be awesome.”

    To learn a language: “Apply yourself. It’s not something that just comes to you. It’s a special skill set that you have to acquire.”

    Side note: In May 2012, Savannah experienced a 6.5-magnitude earthquake while living in Viña del Mar, a city in northern Chile. At the time of the quake, she was home alone in her fourth-story apartment, getting ready for bed. “I was so scared that I was clutching my bedspread. The whole house started shaking violently.” A tsunami warning followed the earthquake, but no tsunami followed.



Monroe Savannah Booké rolls out of bed at 4 a.m., rubs her eyes, grabs her car keys and drives to the American Red Cross in Monroe.

There, she’ll join caseworkers, then head to apartments in Monroe where an electrical fire has forced dozens of individuals from their homes.

Savannah, an 18-year-old senior at Monroe High, serves as a translator for the American Red Cross Disaster Action Team in Union County. She is on call one week each month, from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., and travels with caseworkers to disaster sites to help victims who speak Spanish but not English.

It’s her job to assess each situation with firefighters or police, then speak with victims. She helps families fill out emergency assistance forms – multiple pages she translates word for word, which can take up to an hour to finish.

Calls of distress often come in before the sun rises, Savannah said, so she resorts to using faint car lights to help victims fill out paperwork. Once the paperwork is complete, she plays with any children at the scene, giving parents a moment to talk amongst themselves.

“The great thing is, the Red Cross helps you no matter who you are,” Savannah said. “With kids, I don’t really talk about what’s going on. It’s about taking their minds off of what their parents are going through.”

While the lack of light, pages of paperwork, and destroyed homes are challenges in themselves, Savannah said, the biggest challenge is getting victims to speak openly with her.

“We have to build that trust up with people and (Savannah) is really good at that,” said Barbara Whitley, a lead volunteer at the Union County Red Cross.

Whitley said in most scenarios, especially those involving undocumented immigrants, victims hesitate to open up to caseworkers, for fear of being deported. So Whitley, who does not speak Spanish, relies on Savannah to comfort victims and explain that the organization aims to protect all people affected by disasters.

“(Savannah) is really good with people,” Whitley said. “They are often really afraid and don’t know what they are signing, but (Savannah) helps them.”

Whitley and Savannah are co-workers on many cases, but Savannah said she relies on Whitley’s expertise when she is in the field. Whitley has volunteered with the Red Cross since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. Since then, she has served victims of Hurricane Ike in Texas, and helped tornado victims in north Charlotte and flood victims in Concord.

“I follow her every time I get a call,” Savannah said. “She’s my mentor.”

The Red Cross relies on volunteers like Savannah and Whitley to operate, said Sheila Crunkleton, community chapter executive with the American Red Cross. About 95 percent of the staff are volunteers, while the remaining 5 percent are full-time employees.

“Savannah coming in was a great opportunity, and she’s a tremendous help,” Crunkleton said. “She is filling a need for us.”

Savannah is in her fourth month volunteering with the Red Cross. She has been fluent in Spanish for about a year, she says. In high school, she wanted to learn a new language, but not by sitting in a classroom in the United States. She wanted to immerse herself.

“Freshman year of high school I really wanted to learn Spanish,” Savannah said. “I wanted to be a part of it. It’s easier to learn that way.”

So in August 2011, she packed her bags and moved to Chile, her father’s native country.

She began taking classes at a high school in Los Angeles, Chile – a rural area in the southern part of the country.

At first, Savannah said school was overwhelming because all of her classes were in Spanish. The most difficult class, she said, was AP physics. Throughout the week, Savannah attended 13 classes. She made it through the tough schedule with the help of teachers and host families, she said, and the year counted toward her U.S. graduation.

Of all of her courses, her favorite was literature. “In literature, I was ranking higher than some of the Spanish-speaking students,” Savannah said with a smile.

When not in the classroom, Savannah could be found on the volleyball court, playing for her high school’s team. Savannah’s mother, Elisa Guarda, said playing volleyball allowed her daughter to learn Spanish quickly, because she had to communicate with teammates.

Her host families were the real difference, though. “Living with host families that did not speak English was the most helpful,” Guarda said. “(Savannah) had to learn quickly and her schools were not bilingual, so instruction was all in Spanish.”

Seven months into the trip, Savannah said, she spoke Spanish with ease.

When she returned to the states in June, she didn’t want to lose her new skill, so she signed up to be a volunteer translator for the American Red Cross.

“The first time you help (victims), it’s pretty scary. But I have to be confident for the people I’m helping.”

Savannah is now taking CPR and additional training courses with the Red Cross and hopes to travel with the organization in the future.

Penland: 704-358-6043; Twitter @BrittanyPenland
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