Sheila Johnstone and her American Sign Language program graduates perform at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
From humble beginnings to a place on center stage, Sheila Johnstone never thought the American Sign Language courses she teaches would take her and her students to a grand performance with the Houston Masterworks Chorus under the Artistic and Music direction of Tom Jaber.
“It’s a deep, deep honor and pleasure for me personally to be asked to perform this Christmas program with the Houston Masterworks Chorus. Our performance the chorus will make more people aware of our program and the wonderful work we are doing. It will enable us to put deaf awareness out there, literally at center stage”, said Johnstone.
This is the first time the Houston Masterworks Chorus is having people sign along with their immensely popular Christmas performance held annually at the Catholic Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in downtown Houston.
This year’s event titled “Baroque Pearls” will feature the Houston Masterworks Chorus doing sections of Handel’s Messiah and Select Carols in a sing-along format.
Johnstone, who teaches American Sign Language (ASL) through the non-profit organization, Be An Angel and some of her top students, will do the signing.
This journey is four years in the making. Johnstone and Richard Tyler, a best selling author, entrepreneur and CEO of Richard Tyler International, conceived of the ASL program, during a conversation over a cup of coffee at their local Starbucks, where they had met and become friends ten years earlier. Johnstone, a true Renaissance woman, is an accomplished entrepreneur, scientist, dancer and musician. Retired from her business career now, one of her many activities was teaching ASL, which she had studied and earned a degree in after she saw people signing and was struck by how the hand movements reminded her of dance, which she loved so much.
Johnstone had decided to end her tenure where she had been teaching small groups of adults ASL and was not sure if she was going to pick up another class. Tyler then told Johnstone about Be An Angel Fund, a 501(c)(3) charity whose mission is to improve the quality of life for children with multiple disabilities or profound deafness by providing equipment and services. Tyler had previously served as Chairman of the Board of the charity and is a current Advisory Board member.
Be An Angel was founded in1986 in Houston, Texas after a concerned parent discovered the overwhelming requirements of special needs children and deaf children that were being taught along with Vanguard students at a special program at T.H. Rogers School. At the school to see her child, a Vanguard student, she saw a broken wheelchair in the hallway and asked about it. She was told the school didn’t have the money to get it repaired. She wanted to help, and now over 30 years later, Be An Angel serves thousand of special needs and deaf children throughout Texas. Additionally, Be An Angel provides support to the House of Light Orphanage in the Dominican Republic, caring for more than 40 severe medically fragile children and supporting CAES School for the Deaf by providing hearing aids for over 75 children.
Keep in mind that Be An Angel’s mission is to help deaf children, however after talking with Johnstone, Tyler reasoned that children would benefit if their parents, relatives and friends knew sign language and when those children grew up to be adults they would benefit if there were more people with which they could communicate. He and Johnstone decided to speak with Be An Angel Executive Director Marti Boone. She loved the idea, as did the Board of Directors.
Be An Angel’s American Sign Language Program started with one 10 week ASL Beginner Course. Today, it consists of three separate courses, a beginner level, intermediate level and advanced level. Those wanting to take these classes do so for many reasons. Some, have deaf relatives or friends, some work with the public and want to be able to communicate with deaf individuals they encounter, some are losing their own hearing and others are simply interested in learning a beautiful language.
It was initially thought that only a handful of people would join, perhaps eight or nine in that first course. That wasn’t the case. As a matter of fact, the first course had so many people enroll that an assistant was needed to help Sheila work with the students. A maximum size class would generally be around twenty people. The first class had fifty students with a waiting list of over 200. When those students graduated some wanted to continue to learn so Sheila agreed to teach an Intermediate Level ASL program. Again, when that course ended some still wanted to continue, so Sheila decided to teach an Advanced Level course. In fact, the entire program is such a success that the Houston Chronicle has run four separate articles touting its community impact and popularity.
There is also a soon-to-be released short film by Excellence Edge Films on the ASL program titled “The Power of Words”. The short film showcases some of the ASL graduates as they attended a recently held reunion in the very same Starbucks where Tyler and Johnstone first discussed the idea for the program. In the film, Richard Tyler discusses the origin of the program, which he underwrites. Tyler and Johnstone talk about how beneficial it’s been, not only with helping the deaf community but also the importance of “Paying It Forward”. In the concept of “Paying It Forward”, when someone does something nice for you or you have been blessed in life in some way, look for a way to pay that gift forward to someone else. Both Tyler and Johnstone are big believers in “Paying It Forward”. Because Johnstone volunteers her time and Tyler and his company, Richard Tyler International underwrite the classes and the Hope and Healing Center graciously donate the classroom space, the courses are free to the public. That even includes the final exam dinner for the ASL Advanced students, where they must use only sign language to communicate with the entire group, as well as effectively communicate with individuals that don’t know sign language at the restaurant.
That idea of “Paying It Forward” has grown. Students are now becoming teachers and using their newfound skills to help people they come into contact with in their daily lives. Now other organizations are starting to reach out to the ASL program, wanting a piece of the magic it brings to the community. That’s where the idea for having ASL in the choir came into play for this year’s Christmas performance with the Houston Masterworks Chorus at the Catholic Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Everyone’s hoping the ASL Choir presence draws an even larger crowd to this popular annual event, bringing in not only the deaf community but also those interested in seeing an ASL Choir.
A variety of songs will be sung, however the main event will be “Silent Night.” For this rendition, the choir will sing while Johnstone’s ASL Choir signs along. Then the music stops and the Houston Masterworks Chorus joins in signing, all 130 members, who were taught by Johnstone how to sign this Christmas carol for the performance. It is at this moment, with absolute silence in the cathedral, when everyone in the audience will feel the experience similar to that of a deaf person.
Johnstone says it’s been spectacular working with the Houston Masterworks Chorus and the experience is one she will treasure.
“It’s so nice to have a relationship with people where we both feel equally blessed by this. We feel blessed that they’ve asked us and they feel blessed that we’re going to do it.”
The event takes place on Monday, December 19th at 7:00 pm at Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart located at 1111 St. Joseph Parkway at San Jacinto in downtown Houston. For more information or to buy tickets please visit www.HoustonMasterworks.org.
If you would like to view the Excellence Edge Film on the ASL program and “Paying It Forward” titled “The Power of Words™” when it is released please visit www.Richard-Tyler.com/our-contact-information and send this message; ASL The Power of Words.
Richard Tyler International, Inc.®