Photos By R. Clayton McKee/Freelance
Around the time Sheila Johnstone was wrapping up instruction last spring for her intermediate American Sign Language Class, her students approached her with a request.
“They were begging for an advanced class; they just didn’t want to stop,” the Tanglewood resident said. “They said they felt they were on their way, but they needed more practice, and they wanted to learn the culture.”
The next group of graduates asked for the same thing.
As a result, Johnstone is teaching free beginning, intermediate -and now advanced – 10-week courses on behalf of Be An Angel, a nonprofit organization that serves children with multiple disabilities and/or profound deafness.
“We never dreamed the community would embrace this as much as they have,” said Marti Boone, Be An Angel’s executive director. “The training is an excellent bridge between the non-hearing and hearing world.”
Amelia de Landa, one of the advanced students, started the ASL training because she thought it would be interesting.
“It has ended up meaning much more to me than I expected,” de Landa wrote in a letter to Be An Angel.
“I work with international refugees, and one of the ethnic groups, the Bhutanese (from south Asia), have a high rate of deafness in their community. Most of the deaf Bhutanese have not been to school and had no way of communicating before coming to America as there are few, if any, specialized services in refugee camps.
“Now that they are in Houston, many of them have begun accessing services and learning ASL. When I run into them or work with their families, I am able to have conversations with them, and I cannot tell you how pleased they are and how happy this makes me.”
The process of learning has been rewarding, too, de Landa added. “Sheila is a great teacher, and it doesn’t hurt that she is hilarious.”
Johnstone, who was raised in St. Louis, has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in molecular biology in addition to her degree in ASL.
She worked in a laboratory at the Washington University Medical School and at University of Miami Medical School before creating her own business as a medical/legal research consultant. Her company advised law firms nationwide and offered a records-organizing service named “Order in the Court.”
After moving to Houston, Johnstone lectured at the University of Houston Law School and served on the Health/Law Policy Institute Board.
Johnstone, now retired, recently was elected as secretary of the Mayor’s International Trade & Development Council for the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Johnstone is not deaf or related to a deaf person. She was inspired to learn ASL, she said, by its beauty.
She connected with Be an Angel about a year ago through Uptown resident Richard Tyler, who she’s known for more than seven years. Tyler is a former chairman of the board for Be An Angel and a current advisory board member.
Johnstone, who was interested in volunteer work, asked Tyler to introduce her to the principal of T.H. Rogers Elementary School, which serves more than 75 profoundly deaf students, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, through Houston Independent School District’s Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Tyler organized a meeting with Johnstone, the principal and Marti Boone, executive director of Be An Angel, and they developed the idea to offer free community ASL training at the school. Tyler has been underwriting the cost of the classes.
Students were meeting at T.H. Rogers Elementary until recently, when building renovations and logistical challenges led Johnstone to seek a new location.
She sought help from Scott Basinger, founding executive director of The Hope & Healing Center at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, 717 Sage Road, and he agreed to provide space.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful building, and it’s part of St. Martin’s campus,” Johnstone said.
The first advanced class, which ran through early September, had about 40 students.
“In this class, I’m only teaching every other class of the 10 classes,” Johnstone said earlier this summer. “During the others, members of the deaf community are coming in and speaking to my class. There is no English speaking.”
Johnstone said she was a little apprehensive early in the course, when Tyler came to observe a session led by a guest presenter.
“I was hoping the students would show well, and oh, they did,” she said. “He (Tyler) was so proud.”
Mastering ASL requires more than learning the movements, Johnstone emphasizes. “It’s having the courage and confidence to do it.”
She hopes her advanced course is instilling that confidence in her students as they converse with deaf signers.
“This gives students an opportunity to see the differences in types of signing,” Johnstone said. “It gives them a little encouragement and knowledge about what it’s like to be around people who are deaf and who sign.”
The advanced students’ final exam was a dinner out with the class, where students communicated entirely in sign language. “You can’t look down at your plate, you break off communication,” Johnstone said. “You have to memorize where your food is.”
Boone and Tyler attended, and all of the students passed.
“It was a difficult task for the students and they all feared the experience yet they all saw how much they’ve learned and how they can now feel free to mingle in the deaf community with more confidence,” Johnstone added. “It was a wonderful success.
The advanced students drove to their weekly classes from throughout greater Houston, one from as far as Huffman. “Now they’re begging to have an advanced placement class or something,” Johnstone said. “I don’t have the time, but maybe we can get together once a month and stick together. We’re all bonded.”
Johnstone’s next 10-week, free ASL course for beginners will meet 6-7 p.m. Wednesdays, beginning Oct. 1.
“This is a unique opportunity,” Boone said. “We’re very proud of Sheila Johnstone. We couldn’t do this without her, The Hope & Healing Center and Richard Tyler.”
For more information about the Hope and Healing Center, visit http://www.hopeandhealingcenter.org
This story originally appeared on Houston Chronicle
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About Be An Angel
It is our MISSION to improve the quality of life for children with multiple disabilities or profound deafness by providing adaptive equipment and select services to individuals and institutions that require a supplement to alternative means of funding.
Children are the heart and soul of humanity–they represent all that is good within us. Be An Angel believes that no child should be denied the opportunity to experience life at their fullest potential.
Our VISION is to use all available means to help create a world where every special needs or profoundly deaf child has the opportunity to experience improvements in the personal quality of life, in order to facilitate that child’s ability to grow physically and emotionally to the full extent of their individual capacity.
As a caring, committed and compassionate support system, Be An Angel’s vision is founded upon the belief that identifying and fulfilling the needs of these very special children by providing adaptive equipment, special services and programs will provide the spark that will brighten their lives.
This vision is driven by the belief that our Creator endowed each of us with a limitless capacity for love and compassion. There is no greater expression of love and compassion than to commit time, energy and financial resources in the service of others.
Be An Angel believes that every child is important in this world and can contribute to others in a meaningful way. The equipment, services and programs that we are able to provide contributes to a longer, more productive and fuller life for the children we serve.
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