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Breaking the sound barrier

A Tennessee church member's sign language club unites deaf and hearing children

HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — “It’s a story I want to shout from the mountaintops,” says Poppy O’Guin Steele, an advocate for a multitude of Middle Tennessee children who are deaf.     

Steele, who worships with the Hendersonville Church of Christ, northeast of Nashville, has shared her mission so loudly that deaf and hearing alike have heard her roar.

Poppy O’Guin Steele founded the Sign Club Co. to help deaf children live freely, without barriers, she said.

Her actions prove even louder than her words, whether spoken by mouth or signed by hand. She founded the Sign Club Co. in 2012. Since then the organization, based in Tennessee’s Sumner County, has taught sign language to more than 1,800 youngsters, with Steele teaching about 900 of them herself.

“Our No. 1 goal is to create friends for our deaf children. I find that, especially for deaf children, their safety and literacy is often affected by their isolation,” Steele says. “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.’”

‘THE DEAF WERE MY CHURCH FAMILY’

Steele has been able to communicate with the deaf since the age of 6. She learned by osmosis from her parents, who signed for deaf members of the Hermitage Church of Christ in Nashville.

Although she grew up in a hearing family, her church had 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 says.

She graduated from Ezell-Harding Christian School, an Antioch, Tenn., school associated with Churches of Christ, and earned an English degree from Harding University in Searcy, Ark., in 1994. She married her high school sweetheart, Chris, who is a detective with the Metro Nashville Police Department.

“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.”

Steele is a pre-certified interpreter, but “I found I was more useful to the children as an advocate,” she says. “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.”

‘I HAD TO DO SOMETHING TO HELP’

Two deaf children in particular inspired Steele to launch the Sign Club Co.

“One was a child who was severely abused,” she recalls. “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.

“The other child is absolutely brilliant, one of the smartest children I’ve ever been in contact with. I think the child might have the cure for cancer in her little head if we create the environment around her for her to reach her full potential.”


Poppy O’Guin Steele interprets for the deaf during the Hendersonville Church of Christ’s Sunday worship. The church has 12 to 20 non-hearing worshipers.

The Sign Club brought together a group of volunteers to address the needs of the two children. Now the club is active in eight schools in Sumner and Davidson counties, teaching sign language to deaf and hearing children alike.

“Our immediate focus is kindergarten through fifth grade, but we use the middle school and high school students to teach the elementary kids. We teach before and after school,” Steele says.

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

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

“So the emergency on-call interpreter may be coming from three or four hours away, and in an emergency situation officers may use family or pen and paper, and that is not a good option for children. The first choice is always an interpreter, but if one is not available this allows the officer to use technology.”

The technology includes a tablet that provides video remote interpreting in the field.

Steele has wrapped up training with the Hendersonville Police Department on the execution of the 2015 bill and presently is training the Portland, Tenn., Police Department about deaf abuse awareness.

SERVING THE DEAF IN TENN., JAMAICA

In addition to her work with the Sign Club, Steele interprets for the deaf when needed at the Hendersonville church.

“Once, at a 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’s a passionate advocate for the deaf,” says Rod Stamps, one of the church’s 11 elders. The congregation regularly has 12 to 20 deaf attendees during Sunday worship, Stamps says, and many of them come because of their friendship with Steele.

Church members go on mission trips to Jamaica, where they work alongside the Spanish Town Church of Christ. They also partner with Deaf Can Coffee, a Jamaican coffee shop that employs and serves the non-hearing.

The deaf are a too-often-ignored mission field, Stamps says, and Steele shows them that Christ’s love is without limits.

‘I’VE GIVEN UP A THOUSAND TIMES’

The Sign Club gets regular inquiries from across the U.S. about its program and has made its curriculum available online.

One of Steele’s pet projects is “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,” she recalls.

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 so they can engage with one another.

“Once, at a 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 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.”

Now a full-time worker with the Sign Club, Steele has enrolled in the Nashville School of Law and works with state legislators to launch a deaf mentor program.

“As I study I am finding gaps in the law and reasons our kids are not getting the resources that are available to them,” she says, “and at the end of this journey I hope to be better equipped.

“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.”

Website: signclubco.org

Filed under: deaf Features National People Sign Language Tennessee The Sign Club

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