Finding hope: Savannah’s story
Senior Savannah Hernandez has seen it all – unfortunately. From the hospitalization of her sister to the raw, devastated look on her aunt’s face when she lost her son to depression, she’s witnessed more than her fair share of tragedy.
But if there’s a silver lining to these traumatic experiences, it’s that they engendered an undying will in Hernandez to prevent others from succumbing to depression. Clad in her “Hugs for $1” T-shirt, Savannah appeals to the Walnut community for donations for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). She and her two sisters, Breannah and Katie, who fundraise with her, donated the money at AFSP’s “Out of the Darkness Walk” on Oct. 25.
“I just feel like I need to do something to make sure none of this happens to someone else,” Hernandez said. “The funny part is, [Katie] just walked into my room and said, ‘We’re doing this.’ And [Breannah] and I just said ‘Okay, we’re doing it.’ We didn’t need to discuss it, we didn’t need to argue it, we didn’t even want to decline. We were already on board with it the moment she came in and said ‘I signed us up.’”
There’s a story behind her crusade against depression and suicide, and it isn’t a pretty one.
Before moving to Walnut, the Hernandez family lived in Victorville. Savannah’s older sister Katie, then a teenager, attended a local high school, where she says fear among students and apathy throughout the administration perpetuated a culture of bullying. She says administrators swept the issue under the rug and, after receiving reports on incidents of bullying, chalked the complaints up to attention seeking.
“Pretty much, I mean, bullying kind of ran on fear. Anyone who was different or did anything that the majority didn’t agree with, you got bullied and even if other people thought it was wrong, nobody ever like stood up or said anything because there was always that fear that ‘Oh I don’t want to get bullied too,’” Katie said. “One of my friends, which I didn’t find out until a couple of years ago, I guess she went to one of the counselors and told them that I was depressed and was hurting myself, that I was being bullied, but one of the counselors said just to ignore it and it will go away and that I was probably just looking for attention.
The bullying towards Katie began in the form of food throwing and harsh comments telling her to “shut up” in the classroom. Eventually it became more brutal, and escalated to physical assaults in the bathroom, confrontations by kids armed with razor blades and death threats. At one point, Katie would “accidentally” miss the bus home to avoid her tormentors.
But it didn’t stop there. She was even targeted during work at the Westfield West Covina mall, where co-workers verbally abused her. Nowhere was safe.
“It went from little things like that to more extreme things, where I was getting shoved into my locker,” Katie said. “I had a group of boys come up to me because he was the boyfriend of this one girl that was bullying me saying he was going to come after me with a knife. So it started off little and kind of just exploded into much bigger things.”
Like other victims, Katie was targeted for her personality — a friendly, loud, silly girl who simply smiled too much. Her classmates singled her out for deviating from the norm and attacked her for her overly optimistic attitude.
She says she was afraid to speak out about her traumatic experiences at school because of a pervasive culture that was hostile to whistleblowers. To speak against the perpetrators was the equivalent of stapling a big, red sign on your back that read “Kick me,” or worse, in capital letters.
“Everyone else had the fear of standing up and saying ‘hey that’s wrong’ or ‘you’re bullying this person by doing this’ because no one wants them to turn around, and you know, come after them,” Katie said. “Like I was being bullied on a school bus one time and one girl did stand up for me, saying ‘hey you guys, knock it off’ and they started bullying her. So nobody wants to be the one to stand up because everyone is scared for their life too.”
During her junior year of high school in 2004, Katie reached a tipping point — she made an attempt on her own life. After inflicting severe wounds on herself, she was hospitalized and later admitted to Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center in Redlands, CA. She spent two weeks at the mental institute before she was released.
Katie dropped out of high school the beginning of her junior year and hesitantly underwent therapy with slow, small steps. She stubbornly resisted treatment, making up excuses to avoid appointments with therapists, but later committed to a single counselor and slowly but surely rose out of her slump. Katie passed the General Education Development tests at 19 and enrolled at Mt. Sac in 2012.
In the midst of all the tragedy was 9-year-old Savannah, who witnessed her sister’s bouts with depression firsthand. Katie’s 6 p.m. bedtimes and general lack of energy around the house perplexed Savannah; she explained her sister’s behavior by chalking it up to teenage emotional issues. But intuition told Savannah that there was a larger problem at hand.
“Again, with no one explaining anything to you, you just sort of you see your sister come home, she’s tired,” Savannah said. “You just think it’s schoolwork; you don’t think there’s more behind it. You believe in what your sister says. If she starts crying and she says it’s just hormones or she’s tired from testing, you just believe her.”
September 13, 2011 — it was a Tuesday. Savannah woke up, rolled out of bed and went about her usual daily routine in preparation for school. As she walked down the hallway, she witnessed her mother talking on the phone. The only words she remembers hearing were “Oh my god, oh my god” as her devastated mother attempted to cope with what she had just heard.
Savannah’s cousin, Kevin Barber, was dead.
The Walnut High School alumnus had wrestled with his own demons, and at the end of it, he succumbed to depression.
“It was a really weird feeling because without seeing it yourself, it’s like someone’s telling you something thats not true or just a rumor without proof,” Savannah said. “I remember sitting off by myself, and the worst part of the day was it came over intercom that day. They said that our high school graduate is no longer on this earth.”
Three years after the tragedy, the devastation of her cousin’s passing and haunting memories of her sister’s struggle with bullying fuel Savannah to help others escape the jaws of depression.
“I just remember my mom getting a phone call from my aunt, and my mom just started breaking down crying, saying ‘Oh my god, oh my god,’” Savannah said. “Usually those who are left behind suffer the most. And for the mother — my aunt — the feeling of losing a child never goes away. Why would I want that to happen to another person again? Why would I want that feeling to happen to a father, a mother, a sister?”
The three sisters woke up early that Saturday morning and set out for Santa Monica beach, where dozens of people gathered for the “Out of the Darkness” walk. Every person at the event came from a different walk of life, carrying with them a background, a story, an experience unique from everyone else.
And every person at the walk stopped at a stand laden with multi-colored beads, each representing a different story — purple for the loss of a relative or friend, white for the loss of a child, blue simply to support the cause. In a group of seemingly disparate and unrelated strangers, the beads brought unity in the form of reds, oranges, silvers and greens. Savannah took a purple one for Kevin and a blue one for Katie.
“I just remember grabbing t-shirts and pictures for the cause, getting $10 donations, and I remember there was this one stand that had faces of those who couldn’t make it,” Savannah said. “And I think about my sister, like that could have been her.”
10 years after her admission into the Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center, 25-year-old Katie Hernandez has conquered her demons, and her past with depression is nothing more but a reminder of her emotional strength. She graduated from Mt. San Antonio College and plans to attend Cal Poly Pomona for the 2015 fall term in order to earn her associate’s degree. On top of that, she works with children between 5 and 21 at an acting and modeling agency and hopes to return to high school as a history teacher — this time to cultivate a positive environment students can feel safe in. With her eyes set to the future, her only movement is forward.
“I just feel like that’s my place to be in school, and I love history, that too,” Katie said. “So I figured, I love history and I love working with teenagers and kids and everything so I feel like I can help them out and I can be there to listen to them when they feel like nobody else is listening.”
Savannah continues her crusade against depression by counseling friends in times of need, and fights each and every day to prevent others from suffering from depression. And why? Because she, the girl who witnessed her sister’s every emotional fit, outburst and self-afflicted scar, knows the tremendous, destructive powers of depression. Because despite all the tragedy, Savannah refuses to wallow in remorse and instead chooses to dedicate her time to saving others. Because Savannah Hernandez has truly seen it all — fortunately.
“For me, it’s knowing that it’s real, it’s out there and there is a solution. If there is a solution, why aren’t we using it? So that’s my cause, to make sure everyone knows that it’s real. Second, it’s treatable; it can be helped and you’re not alone. I want to make sure that everyone knows they are not alone, that there is always someone to help them,” Savannah said.
By Bryan Wong, Feature editor