- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

HANOVER, Pa. (AP) - Jeff Wright realized he had an aptitude for sign language when the class he attended to learn signing dwindled down to a private lesson. He’d barely even noticed.

“We were at Chapter 17, and I’m the only one showing up regularly,” Wright said of the course offered through his church, Hanover’s Hope Baptist. “It was just something I had a knack for.”

Flash forward several years, and Wright is the facilitator for the Hanover Deaf Chat, an informal social gathering for the deaf and hard of hearing that meets the third Friday of each month at the Giant Food Store on Baltimore Street.

The chat is an outreach of Hope Baptist Church, but it’s a non-religious gathering. Anyone is welcome, and those who can hear often outnumber those who are deaf, Wright said. The get-togethers also draw American Sign Language students, who are eager to practice in real life what is theoretical in school.

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“Hearing people need to give the deaf community a chance.”

Dani Martin, Deaf chat participant

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On a recent Friday night, more than a dozen people form a half circle with their chairs by the fireplace in Giant’s café area. With its track lighting, silk flowers and racks of magazines on making hearty soups, the store is no hipster hangout, but no one seems to care. The room is simultaneously so loud — hands from multiple conversations moving in rapid signing, waves to get another person’s attention - and yet quiet, save for the pockets of laughter and occasional voices.

In the “hearing world,” Wright said, frequent interactions with others throughout the day, like at the grocery store or coffee shop - “a little chitchat” - are the norm.

Deaf people do not have that same opportunity, Wright said, particularly in rural Adams County, where the deaf community probably numbers around 10 people, an estimate he interprets from attendee Bill Lau, who is at the chat with his wife.

Over the past two years, Wright said, the chat itself has grown, with attendance often numbering 20 or more people.

On this particular Friday, many in the room are already regulars, but newcomers without a sign name are given one, said Robin Lawson, a church interpreter at Hope Baptist. Even though Lawson can speak fluently, she is not certified, she said, because she hasn’t taken the state exam.

“Most times, deaf (people) have to give you your sign name; you can’t give it to yourself,” she said. Lawson demonstrates her own first name - forming the letter “R” in American Sign Language, then moving her fingers together to make a clothespin-like shape, a “bird tap,” she said, almost like she’s using chopsticks.

At a table near the wall, Marta Galdamez and Vonda Altland sit with a small group of other attendees. Altland grew up in Hanover, Galdamez interprets, the only deaf member of her family. She’s a regular at the chat, often sporting a feline-themed hat that displays her love of cats (she has 12).

Across the room, Bermudian Springs grad Roger Solorio is seated near his sister, Celeste, who often accompanies him to the chats. Solorio goes to school at Harrisburg Area Community College’s Gettysburg campus and takes a weekly sign language class in York. The deaf character on the TV show “Switched at Birth” got him interested in deaf culture, Solorio said. Both he and his sister have also witnessed firsthand some of the challenges of their niece in California, who is deaf and gave the Solorios their sign names.

“When I found out about this place, I was excited. It makes me a better signer,” he said.

Solorio observed that the younger generation of deaf people are more inclined toward Internet-based organizing and events, while the in-person gatherings he’s attended like this one in Hanover tend to be an older demographic.

Dani Martin, of Finksburg, Maryland, is practicing her signing with Sharon Tuttle, a Hanover native who recently returned to the area after 30 years in Lancaster. There’s a limited deaf community here, Tuttle says, but she likes it.

Martin is getting a degree in sign language, interpreting at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville. She remembers passing through the living room one night in high school while her grandmother was watching television. President Obama was speaking, and a female interpreter was signing alongside him. She changed all of her classes the next day.

“Hearing people need to give the deaf community a chance,” Martin said, adding that the deaf are constantly having to adapt themselves to a hearing world.

‘I’ve got to give my life to help the deaf’

Curt Young remembers the day a deaf pastor from Atlanta spoke at his church. Afterward, Young sat in the pew and cried.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to give my life to help the deaf,’” he said.

Young, Wright’s predecessor, started the Hanover Deaf Chat. He is the director of deaf ministries for International Partnership Ministries, which is based out of Spring Avenue in Hanover.

International Partnership Ministries works with more than 20 deaf ministries all over the world, as well as its affiliate church here in town, Hope Baptist Church.

Young created the deaf chat as a way for deaf residents in the area to get together and connect in a relaxed social atmosphere, regardless of religion or background.

Isolation for deaf individuals is “rarer and rarer” these days, Young said, but it still happens. He recalls paying a visit to a Hanover woman three years ago who had never been to deaf school and knew few signs. He wanted to relay the Creation story to her, so he got down on the ground in her front yard (“I had to be careful not to smash her roses”), acting out how God created man from the dirt.

Things changed abruptly for Young when he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, an inherited condition that breaks down nerve cells in the brain. He started to phase out of some of the ministry work and helped Wright take over as the chat facilitator. Young and his wife moved to Missouri this March to be closer to their children, securing a single-floor, ranch-style home so he won’t have to navigate the stairs.

His commitment to helping the deaf is a lifelong one, unbroken by his illness, as he plans to continue with deaf ministry work in whatever capacity he can.

He’ll also keep working on his signing.

“We tend to get satisfied,” he said, flattening his palm parallel to his chest like he’s measuring a watermark. Despite his years of immersion, he still keeps a book called “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Sign Language” at the ready.

“I figured I needed that,” he said.

Back in Hanover, Wright is gratified, if a little surprised, by just how popular the monthly gatherings have become.

“They pencil it in as part of their month, something they look forward to,” he said of the attendees.

He has already exhibited the mark of an effective leader: he managed to render himself virtually unnecessary.

“It runs itself,” Wright said. “Whether I show up or not, the show still goes on.”

SidebarL

Hanover Deaf Chat

When: Every third Friday, 6 to 8 p.m.

Where: Giant Food Store, 801 Baltimore St., Hanover

The chat is open to anyone who is deaf, hard of hearing or interested in practicing American Sign Language.?

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Marta Galdamez, Robin Lawson, Dani Martin, Becca Moran, Jeff Wright and Curt Young interpreted for this article.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1Te5SUR

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Information from: The Evening Sun, https://www.eveningsun.com

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