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Sign language group keeps the lines of communication open

Created date

January 10th, 2017
Ashby Ponds’ sign language group.

Ashby Ponds’ sign language group (from left): Mary Wilkins, Ann West, Paula Murphy, Lyn Knapp, Ruth Yoritomo, Janet Menassa, Sharon Harvey, Jean Balcom, Chiyoko Norman, and Eve Christian.

“When I moved to Ashby Ponds in 2010, I wondered if I would have anyone to talk to,” says Eve Christian, who has been profoundly deaf since contracting spinal meningitis when she was six years old.

Encouraged by friendly, outgoing neighbors, Eve and her husband Leroy, who was also deaf, started a sign language class for members of the Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va. 

“I truly appreciate everyone who has taken the time to learn sign language,” says Eve. “It is wonderful to have friends to talk with each day. I’ve made many wonderful new friends as a result of the class.”

These friendships were the glue that held Eve together when Leroy passed away in March 2012.

“Without them I would have felt isolated and alone,” she says.

Creating connections

Although each member of the sign language class had their own reasons for learning the language, each and every one is grateful to their friend Eve who devotes countless hours to developing lesson plans and patiently instructing her pupils. 

“My grandniece was born with a congenital hearing problem,” says class member Mary Wilkins. “Joining the group provided me the opportunity to join her in conversation. She is much faster than me, but we have fun.”

“I am a lifelong learner who wanted the challenge of learning a new language,” says Lyn Knapp. “The added benefit is this wonderful group of friends I’ve made.”

Class member Sharon Harvey met Eve shortly after the Christians moved to Ashby Ponds. 

“I felt bad that I could not communicate with her very well,” says Sharon. “At the time, I felt that the class was a wonderful idea. I knew that she would feel more at home if people in our community could speak to her through sign language.”

The sign language class meets every Monday and Thursday in the Blue Sky Café. On Thursdays, many of the members stay after to enjoy dinner together.

“It’s also a great opportunity to practice what we’ve learned, especially with the high school servers,” says Lyn. “Quite a few of them take American Sign Language to fulfil their language requirement.”

For Eve’s last birthday, members of the wait staff learned to sign “Happy Birthday” to sing at her dinner celebration.

Powerful benefits

Along with learning to communicate to Eve and each other, members of the sign language class are learning that their second language is also a powerful tool.

“I first became interested in sign language years ago when my brother and I visited my mother in the hospital following heart surgery,” says class member Ann West. “Because she was on a ventilator, she was unable to speak to us. We gave her a pen and paper but found we couldn’t read her scribbled notes. 

“That scared me. I decided then that I would never put myself in a position that kept me from being able to communicate, especially in an emergency. As a result, I took a sign language class and learned to sign the alphabet. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a practice partner and soon lost those communication skills. It was not until I moved to Ashby Ponds and joined the sign language class that I was able to really learn the language and work on this important skill.”

Group members feel the knowledge of the language comes with a responsibility to help others. 

“Our group looks out for each other, most especially Eve,” says Janet Menassa. “We make sure she’s aware of any unexpected situations.”

“I met a deaf person on an elevator while visiting California,” says Lyn. “I was thrilled that I was able to engage in conversation, even if I’m still not as fast as I would like.”  

Sharing with neighbors

Eve’s sign language students share their love of the language regularly with other members of the Ashby Ponds community.

For the last two years, the group has performed at the annual talent show.

“This year, we performed the song, ‘A, You’re Adorable,’” says Ann. “We took turns signing each letter of the alphabet and repeated the alphabetic gestures at the end.

The group also shares information on sign language at Ashby Ponds’ diversity day, encouraging anyone stopping by at their table to attempt to spell their name using the alphabetic sign chart. Those who were successful received a Hershey’s Kiss.

“We want to encourage more people to learn sign language,” says Janet. “It’s a wonderful gift to anyone who cannot hear. I can’t imagine feeling like I had no one to talk to.”

True friendship

As their skills grow, so does the class’s devotion to their leader.

“We all feel privileged to be part of Eve’s circle of friends,” says Ann. “She is a strong, independent, college-educated, cheerful woman.”

“She amazes all of us,” says Ruth Yoritomo. “She loves to sing and even understands rhyming. I find that fascinating.”

“There is so much that we can learn from each other,” says Sharon. “I’m so grateful for Eve and this class for the friendships I’ve made, and for learning a powerful language that is so helpful to so many.”