Just weeks into his sign-language lessons, Evan was easily signing “yes,” “no” and “more.”
The first time Mary-Kathryn Jackson got up to leave the Hewgleys’ Germantown apartment, the 3-year-old boy she had just begun to tutor clung to her and cried.
Before he met her, crying was about the only way Evan Hewgley-Peterson could communicate.
BUY THIS PHOTO »Lindsey McGarrh-Hewgley tries to communicate with her stepson, Evan Hewgley-Peterson, who was born deaf. Mentor Mary-Kathryn Jackson works with parents Lindsey and Ted Hewgley, teaching them sign language.
“It was awful,” said his stepmother, Lindsey McGarrh-Hewgley. “We didn’t know what he wanted.”
But that has started to change as the family learns sign language with free help from their personal mentor, who is herself deaf.
The Hewgleys are one of 20 families enrolled in a new mentoring program for deaf children from the Deaf Family Literacy Academy of Memphis, sponsored by the Memphis City Schools Foundation and Dollar General.
Just weeks into lessons, Evan easily signs to his parents: “yes” and “no” and “more.”
By Jackson’s third trip to the household last week, tears had been replaced with hand motions, nods and grins.
The pink-cheeked boy sat in the middle of the living room, which has furniture and appliances labeled so he can begin to identify their names, and tapped on an iPad, matching colors.
Then he tucked his thumb into his hand and flicked his wrist twice. “Blue.”
Jackson said, through an interpreter, that the family-centered aspect of the program drew her in. The children she tutors will have different home lives than she did because her father never learned to sign, and her mother only knew basics.
About 95 percent of children born deaf have hearing parents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Deborah Carrier, assistant director at DFLA of Memphis, said many hearing parents “are afraid they can’t learn a second language.”
Mentoring from a non-hearing person helps bridge the divide between hearing parents and deaf children, she said.
“It forces us to learn so much more,” said McGarrh-Hewgley. “I love it,” she added in sign language, crossing her hands over her chest.
There are approximately 400 deaf and hard of hearing children in the Greater Memphis area, according to DFLA, and already there is a wait-list for the program. DFLA at Memphis hopes to serve 30 families next year, and 50 the following, said Carrier.
On top of sign language lessons, the mentors focus on reading comprehension with their pupils, who range in age from 0 to 12.
Deaf and hard of hearing students typically demonstrate low reading ability and according to DFLA, deaf high school seniors, on average, perform at a fourth-grade reading level.
“We want to help these children become equal with their peers,” signed Jackson. “We want to get them to college.”
And that night, as she signed about her time at Gallaudet University, a top school for deaf and hard of hearing students, Evan’s father, Ted, was all eyes.
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