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Breaking the sound barrier

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Seen teaching sign language to a group of school children, Poppy O’Guin Steele said that the Sign Club is active in eight schools in Sumner and Davidson counties with a focus on students in kindergarten through fifth grade. A Sign Club curriculum kit is in the works so that schools in other states can start their own programs. Photo submitted
Gallatin’s Poppy O’Guin Steele founded the Sign Club Co. in 2012 so that she and other volunteers could teach sign language to children to help deaf children live freely and without barriers. To date the organization has taught 1,500 youngsters how to communicate via sign language. Steele, the author of “Deaf in a City of Music,” will sell the book from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1, at the Gallatin Public Library. Proceeds go to a fund for research and to help find solutions for deaf children who are abused. Photo submitted
Poppy O’Guin Steele signs on Sunday mornings for deaf members of the Hendersonville Church of Christ. She learned signed language as a child watching her parents sign for the deaf at the Hermitage Church of Christ. Photo submitted

"It's a story I want to shout from the mountaintops," says Poppy O'Guin Steele, a relentless champion for a multitude of Middle Tennessee children who are deaf.

She shares her mission so loudly that deaf and hearing alike have heard her roar.

Her actions even prove louder than her words, whether spoken by mouth or signed by hand. In 2012 she founded the Sign Club Co., a nonprofit organization that advocates for deaf children and principally teaches sign language. Since then it has taught more than 1,500 youngsters, with Steele teaching about 900 of them herself.

Sign Club instructors teach conceptually accurate signed English to hearing and deaf students, including those who wear hearing aids or have cochlear implants.

"Our No. 1 goal is to create friends for our deaf children. I find that especially for deaf children, their safety and literacy are often affected by their isolation," said Steele. "I've seen deaf children who were mainstreamed frequently sit by themselves at lunch or on the playground. They rarely will have family or friends around them who communicate in their language. So many of our deaf children hardly have language at all.

"We try to create a community around them who can communicate with them. One of the statistics is that at least 50 percent of deaf children are sexually abused, so if they have a friend who can sign they can say, 'I don't want to go home. I'm afraid of mom's boyfriend or of my uncle.'"

Steele has communicated with the deaf since the age of 6 as she learned by osmosis from her parents, who signed for deaf members of the Hermitage Church of Christ. She recently released Deaf in a City of Music," a book about the plight of many deaf youngsters.

She says the book was inspired by two deaf children. She describes their situations and those of more than 20 others, changing names and genders so their identities remain anonymous.

One of these is a girl with blank eyes that she calls Lolita.

"She was severely abused. No one in her home signs. Her mom is a drug addict and she sells Lolita to men for money to buy drugs," recalled Steele. "When trying to get help for the child, I kept having closed doors and unanswered emails and non-returned phone calls. I decided it was hard, and, impossible as it seemed, I had to do something to help."

Another was Franco, a little boy with great curiosity who loved to watch caterpillars, hoping he would see one change into a butterfly. He only knew the signs for animals.

"He is absolutely brilliant, one of the smartest children I've ever been in contact with, but he didn't have language. I think the child might have the cure for cancer in his little head if we create the environment around him for him to reach his full potential," said Steele.

"In both cases the key was language. Those children were isolated."

In the first case the isolation contributed to the child not receiving help from abuse until it was too late. In the second, the child didn't have access to language to be able to excel in all areas of education.

"Most of the time when I talk about the situation of our deaf children, people say, 'I had no idea. I didn't know that. What can I do to help?' So I wanted to find a way to tell the children's story to bring awareness to the issues," she said.

She heartily recommends the book for those who work with deaf children or who are in families with deaf children. Among other facts she points out that about 90 percent of parents of deaf children never learn to sign.

"To me this book speaks to all of us. I want people who read it to be upset to the point of action. I want people to have an emotional response to the point of taking action," she said.

By action she means she would like to see that police departments provide a certified interpreter when communicating with the deaf, especially deaf children, and that the same would be true in schools and in courtrooms.

"It is law that they have to," Steele said, but she has observed that often the deaf child winds up as their own advocate. And that's not the best way as there are cases in which the parents may be the abusers or protecting the abuser from authorities.

"The children need someone on their side speaking up for them. That takes a community," she said, referring to teachers, special-education assistants, daycare providers, nurses and EMT personnel who should know that deaf children can be at higher risk than their hearing peers.

Steele grew up in Hermitage with a hearing family, but her church family included from 30 to 60 non-hearing members during her teenage years. "The deaf were my church family, and so I assumed that every deaf person grew up like that because deaf people were all around me," she said.

The Ezell-Harding High School graduate earned an English degree from Harding University in Arkansas in 1994. She married her high school sweetheart, Chris, who is a detective with Metro Nashville. They have lived in Sumner County for the past seven years and have two daughters, Portia, a married college student, and Ruthie, a junior at Hendersonville High School.

Steele has taught English on the high school level and developmental writing at Columbia State. She is a certified interpreter, but several years ago discovered she wasn't cut out for the world of interpreting.

"I found I was more useful to the children as an advocate. I could be a voice for the children in situations where as an interpreter I had to remain neutral. So now I can go into situations and encourage individuals and organizations to call for an interpreter. I stand as a friend and advocate for the child until the interpreter arrives," she said.

"I find that most people want to abide by the law but are not familiar with the law or do not know the deaf culture or know what it looks like to call for an interpreter or use an interpreter. A little education goes a long way."

She shared that most deaf and oral deaf students in Tennessee are mainstreamed, and they may or may not know sign language. Each county is different in the resources they provide. Some require that interpreters for the students be certified, and others do not. Some have an interpreter going from class to class with the child, but many do not.

The ideal, Steele said, would be that all faculty and staff can sign, especially guidance counselors so that deaf students could speak to them directly.

Through the Sign Club it has been possible to create a group of volunteers that communicates with the deaf youngsters and teaches sign language. The club is active in eight schools in Sumner and Davidson counties including Eakin Elementary, Hendersonville High School, Indian Lake Elementary, Jack Anderson Elementary, Station Camp Middle School, Benny Bills Elementary, Gene Brown Elementary and Lakeside Park Elementary.

"Our immediate focus is kindergarten through fifth grade, but we use the middle school and high school students to teach the elementary kids," said Steele. "The most clubs we had was 16. We teach before school and after school.​ We have had up to five people helping in one year as subcontractors. I spent that year searching for support. It was tough. This year we have all volunteers, five new people. We must find a way to sustain that."​

One of the highlights since she became an advocate for the deaf was the passage of a Tennessee bill in 2015 that Steele refers to as the young deaf child abuse law.

"It outlines for police departments how to use technology for interpreters. The law says a deaf person should have a certified interpreter, but in our rural counties there may be none at all," she said.

That means in case of an emergency with a deaf person, instead of waiting for an interpreter to arrive or trying to communicate via pen and paper, an officer can use a tablet, comparable to an iPad, which has an app that allows the officer to quickly connect with a certified interpreter. The interpreter will pop up on screen and can then interpret for the deaf child or adult. While not perfect, it is similar to having an interpreter present.

"We have been working with the Hendersonville police department on the execution of that law, and on March 30 at 8:30 a.m. we will sign the final papers and be putting a tablet with video remote interpreting on it into the field," she reported.

"We're waiting for a grant to expand to Sumner County Sheriff's Office, Sumner Regional Hospital and Portland City Police. We're hoping to show how easy it is and what kind of impact it can have."

Another landmark event has been the development of a sign language teaching curriculum which should be available this summer.

"The idea of the curriculum being that someone who has no knowledge of sign language can pick up this Sign Club kit and start up. We have a waiting list of people who want it. We are hoping we can create communities to sign so this will keep our kids safe and help them be literate."

Steele said the club recently had two calls from interested parties in Memphis asking how they could start their own program. "We're trying to do the best we can to get that resource to other places in Tennessee, and we have had requests from Texas, Michigan, Kansas, Washington and Illinois," she said.

One of her pet projects has been an occasional "Silent Night Dinner," based on a Tuesday night tradition her parents began. "Anyone who came had to sign or sit quietly, whether we went out to eat or stayed home."

To prepare for these events, Steele checks in with a local restaurant and teaches a bit of sign language to the staff. She then invites the deaf in the community and some of her sign language pupils, deaf and hearing, so they can engage with one another.

"This gives the deaf the opportunity to socialize and some of the students get to see the people who use the language and practice what they have been learning. Some of my favorite moments have been at a silent dinner," she said.

"Once at Chick-fil-A where I had taught the staff, one of our deaf teens came in and went to order in sign language, and the cashier took the order and exchanged money. She then she sat down with the hearing students, and they all had a lovely evening laughing and talking in sign language, and in that moment I said, 'This is what we do.' This child who sat at lunch by herself was no longer alone. She had friends and was being a teenager and laughing."

Steele and her family enjoy camping and hiking in state parks. She also pitches in with the Middle Tennessee Deaf Quilters in Gallatin and interprets on Sunday mornings for the deaf members of the Hendersonville Church of Christ.

She hits the beat on a new job next week.

"The Sign Club board just engaged me to work full time work for the club," she said.

"I've given up a thousand times in a day, but in my mind I see the face of a little girl cowering in a corner. I just want to know that the next generation will not be in that corner," said the woman who listens when deaf children speak.

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