Super Senior: Nevada County’s Annie Looby has circled the globe helping people, with no signs of slowing
February 27, 2018
Dr. Annie Looby's travel bags are always packed.
She's at the beck and call of the American Red Cross, serving on its Disaster Mental Health Team and helping disaster victims put their lives back together.
The self-effacing Grass Valley woman is reluctant to talk about the thousands she has touched, and she refuses to consider her work heroic. When pressed, Looby will only say her contributions come from a place deep in her heart and need no recognition.
"I was born to do it and I can't give it up," said Looby, who began her volunteer career with the Red Cross in 1994. "I've been activated to assist with crisis intervention, problem-solving and education with victims during disasters that include floods, fires, tornadoes and hurricanes."
Because of her extensive psychology training, Looby was deployed to heart-wrenching disaster areas such as the 1997 KAL plane crash in Guam. More recently, she has worked a grueling 36-day stint in Florida following Hurricane Irma, 25 days in Haiti and eight weeks in Puerto Rico and St. Croix. She spent Christmas, New Year's Eve and her 74th birthday in the storm-ravaged region.
"Holding babies is one of my things," said Looby. "One time, I had to hold a baby who was dying because I didn't want it to die alone. I'll never forget that. The mother was squeezing my hand so hard and said, 'I can't do this.' Afterward, the attending physician and I went outside the medical tent and just hugged and cried."
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Another job assigned to Looby is assuaging the mental and emotional traumas experienced by her fellow Red Cross disaster team members.
"I had to save a doctor from committing suicide," recalled Looby. "She had enough in a syringe to kill herself. I said, 'Please put that down and let's talk.' Doctors want to save lives but when you're in Haiti in a tent without equipment, there are deaths that you know had you been in the U.S. you could have saved. It's depressing."
After each deployment, Looby's performance is evaluated by a supervisor. Her reviews are filled with praise: "Despite a very challenging recovery center operation she remained a positive and professional presence …," "Her ability and dedication to the American Red Cross are of a caliber not commonly found in any organization …," "She deployed her staff to the most critical areas, constantly assessing needs and appropriately modifying service delivery plans …," and "Annie's skills, compassion, knowledge, willingness, multicultural experience and kindness coupled with her pleasant attitude were especially useful in dealing with the grief of clients who had lost loved ones."
Outside her volunteer work for the Red Cross, Looby's expertise has long been in demand. She worked two years in a Tibetan refugee orphanage in the Indian Himalayas. Years later, she helped train employees of organizations in Nepal who rescue children from human traffickers.
She presented day-long, intensive workshops, such as "The Effects of Trauma on the Emotional, Mental and Physical Development of Children" and "Training Caregivers in the Techniques to Use with Traumatized Children." She battled exploitive orphanages that trafficked the children they were supposed to help.
"Some of those sexually-abused children were as young as 3 years old," said Looby.
Looby earned her Ph.D in Counseling Psychology at the University of Missouri, and in 2005, she was awarded the inaugural Outstanding Humanitarian Alumni Award. Looby delivered the commencement address that year, and later teamed with a graduate student to found the nonprofit Funding African Children's Education, Inc.
The organization helped families in Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania pay for their children's tuition at the high school level and above.
"Raising enough money from private donations to fund all of the orphaned and needy students who were worthy of our help was our biggest challenge," said Looby. "We had several successful years and helped 103 students attend high school."
The charity had to be disbanded after its finances were compromised by an internet financial fraud scam.
The right tools
In addition to her Ph.D., Looby has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology and a Master of Arts degree in counseling. As a marriage and family counselor, Looby led gang mediation in Fresno County and took 100 delinquent boys on a wagon train trip from Arizona to Montana.
Two publishers have asked Looby to write an autobiography or other type of book.
"I'm too busy living to write about what I'm doing," she said.
Looby said she's spiritual, but not necessarily religious. She is, however, devout about her "attitude of gratitude" and the opportunities it offers.
"The world is my church," Looby said. "I can't put myself in a box — it's too small for me. A pastor friend once told me my spirit is too big."
Keeping in shape
Knowing she cannot help others unless she herself is physically and mentally ready, this Super Senior pursues various athletic endeavors with vigor.
"To be mentally, physically and emotionally able to do this kind of volunteer work, I need to keep myself in shape, make time to relax and go with the flow," said Looby, who participates in spin, core and weight-training classes. Every Sunday, she bikes 30 miles along the American River. She has completed a half-dozen triathlons; the most recent race was last year at age 73.
While her world travels with the American Red Cross take her to scenes of desperation and misery, she's also carved out time to visit landscapes of inspiration and hopefulness. Her major hikes have included the Himalayas and the Anapurna Base Camp, Mt. Everest base camp, the Langtang Trek in Nepal and more than 600 miles of North America's Pacific Crest Trail.
"I've enjoyed nine-day, 90-mile backpacking trips for 24 consecutive years all over the Sierra," said Looby, who moved to Nevada County in 2012.
For her 70th birthday, she hiked with her sister 221 miles of the John Muir trail, including 11 passes and summiting Mt. Whitney (elevation 14,505 feet).
Looby is thankful for her health, and hopes she can inspire others to give back, whether locally or on the world stage. She knows what her own future holds.
"More of the same," Looby said. "I'm going to keep going until I can't go anymore."
Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. To suggest a Super Senior to be featured in The Union, contact her at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.
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