CCANO sets free training for volunteer interpreters

Chaos always ensues after a disaster. Imagine being in the midst of the chaos and not being able to speak English to obtain emergency assistance.  Catholic Charities Spirit of Hope ministry has repeatedly witnessed the difficulties of limited-English speaking residents after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, the oil spill and Isaac and decided to create a permanent list of volunteer interpreters who are fluent in English and another language. The individuals would be called upon whenever needed during disaster recovery.

While Catholic Charities has always offered interpreter services, a specific interpreter and translation service was developed after the oil spill, and Spirit of Hope was created, said Shaula Lovera, Spirit of Hope program director. By the time Hurricane Isaac struck last year, Spirit of Hope was better prepared but still had to scramble in the community to find interpreters beyond Catholic Charities employees who spoke English and Spanish.

“We’re trying to streamline and organize volunteer interpreting services since more and more disasters have been happening more frequently,” Lovera said, each one taking on a different form. “This will allow us to offer a higher quality of service to the community with trained volunteers who will know what to do and what not to do and understand what is going on.”

Having a permanent bank of trained interpreters and their contact information will make it easier for Spirit of Hope to quickly mobilize more volunteers, thus lessening a situation like in Gustav, Lovera said, where volunteers were working 10-hour days to help people.

“But even so, people wanted to be there,” she said. “They didn’t want to leave people stranded without assistance. It was a humbling experience.”

What the training entails?

Danielle Smith, interpreting and translation services coordinator for Spirit of Hope, said the training prepares interpreters not only to do interpreting but gives an overview of what to expect in the field.

“It’s more structured than, ‘Oh, here is this message and you translate it,’” Smith said.

Volunteers practice memory activities since they have to immediately interpret what families tell them and not forget anything; learn Catholic Charities policies; become familiar with the terminology of government and volunteer agencies, forms, etc., associated with disasters; and learn an interpreter code of ethics that stresses the confidentiality of information and that the client is the one controlling the information, not the interpreter.

Info feedback only

Interpreters are only there to repeat information, not give advice or edit information and only give what they think is important, Lovera said. Volunteers take a back seat so agencies such as the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (D-SNAP) and those needing help communicate directly.

“If they are not trained, they may think they are being helpful, but are actually leaving out essential information that could result in an individual or family being denied essential emergency assistance,” Lovera said.  “We really want them to be well-trained.”

The volunteer training sessions are six hours (conducted over two days) May 11 or 13 and May 14 or 15 at the Incarnate Word Community Center Uptown off South Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans. Volunteers will be served lunch during the four-hour days.

Spirit of Hope seeks ways to serve the community better after every disaster and is looking beyond just volunteers who can speak English and Spanish fluently. During Isaac in 2012, volunteer translators were needed for Portuguese, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Khmer (Cambodian), French and Haitian Creole.
Last year, there were about 40 volunteers. Spirit of Hope is looking for more so people don’t have to work 10-hour shifts.

“There might be no disaster this year, but we just want to be ready,” Smith said.
Smith and Lovera said in addition to those languages and English, they are seeking individuals also fluent in Arabic and Korean.

Smith has been reaching out beyond Catholic churches and ministries in the archdiocese to non-Catholic entities such as associations for specific countries outside of the United States to find interpreters for as many languages as possible.

“The need is really important,” Lovera said. “Sometimes, during disasters, you forget that there are communities that don’t speak the same language and are very vulnerable. These people won’t ever seek assistance if they don’t understand the language.”

Lovera said it is an issue of social justice and equality.

“We want to make sure everybody is served, and nobody is left behind because they don’t understand the language. We are honoring Catholic Charities’ mission to serve the underserved.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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