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Red Cross volunteers fluent in two dozen languages

October 01, 1998|By MARLO BARNHART

Long known for teaching swimming, collecting blood and aiding disaster victims, the American Red Cross chapter in Hagerstown does all these things - and does it in more than two dozen languages if needed.

This international flavor didn't happen by accident. Much effort has gone into recruiting area residents who have language fluencies that can be called into service in emergencies, officials said.

"I've been involved for three or four years," said volunteer Agnes Supernavage. The Red Cross language bank has been active here for at least 15 years, she said.

"I'm involved because I know Spanish and Russian," said Hagerstown attorney Scott Schubel, another volunteer.

He said he learned Spanish in school and picked up Russian by reading and studying on his own.

A native of Belgium, Supernavage said she has been called on to use her French, including one time when the person for whom a translator was needed was Haitian.

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"I have also picked up Spanish from listening to audiotapes in my car and using books," Supernavage said.

Occasions when translators are needed include court appearances, accidents, and fires.

A few years ago, a busload of Spanish-speaking travelers and their Spanish-speaking bus driver wrecked west of Hagerstown. Rescuers had difficulty communicating with the victims to determine the extent of injuries, destinations, and other information.

The ideal situation is to have at least three people fluent in each language, Supernavage said. For that to happen, more volunteers need to come forward.

She recently contacted the English As A Second Language parents and got a few responses.

"We especially need more volunteers in French Creole-Haitian, Serbo-Croatian and Southeast Asian languages such as Korean, Vietnamese and Thai," Supernavage said.

Schubel said there is a small Russian community living in Hagerstown.

"Their children learn English in about a week and a half," Schubel said. "But it's a lot tougher for the adults."

For more information on the Red Cross language bank and how one can volunteer, call 301-739-0717.

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