PEORIA, Ill. — If you can speak, your voice will be heard, but for many deaf children in Jamaica, their voices are muffled, or even silenced.
That's where members of On To Victory! Deaf Ministries step in. A group of four from the ministry traveled to Jamaica earlier this month to improve the lives of deaf children there.
"Before these schools were established, there was no place for them to go," said Nora Bishop, who made the trip for the first time. "There was a 5-year-old boy who had no language at all. Think about how far behind you would be if you couldn't speak. Parents didn't know (sign) language and didn't want to learn it, and they hid him from the world."
The group worked at the Jamaican Christian School for the Deaf, teaching Bible lessons through story board format and a mixture of Jamaican and American Sign Language. Members of pastor Randy Sanders' congregation wanted to give the children hope for the future, in a society that has stigmatized the deaf.
For Jerry Edwards of Peoria, who is deaf, the trip had special meaning: It was a chance to help children get through what can be a difficult process of early education.
"I remember when I (first) went to the school for the deaf, and I saw many people were signing," Edwards reminisced before the trip, "'How will I ever learn all this, I know nothing.' But then I started and it was first things first."
The school is like any other, with the exception being its students are deaf and children from kindergarten through high school live and learn on school grounds.
In many cases, the Jamaican children ministered to have been abandoned by their families because of their condition, said Sanders.
"They're throw-away kids," he said. "Every one of them felt they were rejected by dad and mom."
He said many times a deaf child is seen as punishment for the sins of the parents, according to an old myth that still pervades the island nation.
During their time at the school, the children become a tight-knit community, according to Sanders. It's after their time at the school - when they return to a society in which they're the minority - when their education proves its worth, even if it means working a menial job, he said.
"Most of these kids will end up working on farms or in factories, especially because they're deaf and the noise of the machinery doesn't affect them," Sanders said. "One little girl we talked to said it is her dream to work as a cashier."
Sanders started the local church for the deaf more than two years ago. They worship in rented space at the Glen Hill Evangelical Free Church in East Peoria. The March trip was Sander's 15th to Jamaica since 2005. The group, whose trip was paid for by a combination of donations from the congregation and money from their own pockets, spent a week at the school teaching Bible-based lessons.
"There's definite progress. But for me what is so surprising and satisfying is when we go back months later, they'll show us the (Bible) story boards and retell us the story," Sanders said. "I have people in a hearing ministry forget the message after nine minutes. The real progress that I see as we go back is that we give them hope."
Bishop made the trip at the request of the Jamaican Christian School for the Deaf. She is a mental health therapist, and the school officials wanted her to counsel the children who sometimes develop behavioral issues as a result of their abandonment.
"This country (United States) has the media and the Americans With Disabilities Act - so many things for people who need help," Bishop said. "But for underdeveloped countries, they don't have that."
For the deaf in Jamaica, especially children, the community is isolated, where long-held beliefs about the hearing-impaired relegate them to second-class citizenship, or worse, Sanders said.
"When I go to Jamaica, I always get this sense of going back in to time," he said. "Their culture hasn't caught up yet."
Rewarding to members as well
Church member Gary Lane of Peoria, who has made the trip for the past two years, along with Edwards, got as much out of the trip as he gave.
"I feel awful that they're so backward, there's such a disparity," Lane said. "One time I met a girl, she was 12 years old and in third grade. I felt so sad."
Bringing deaf people to the school and showing what they can do is the best motivator for the children, Sanders said.
"It's amazing to see. We bring deaf people to model it, we bring them as a finished product. The idea is simple: 'He can do it, I can do it.' When (Gary and Jerry) stand up there, it's just like a tractor beam, the kids just hone in on it," Sanders said. "It's life-changing."
A message of hope
That message of hope is more important to Sanders, Lane, Edwards and Bishop than expanding their ministry. Through the message of the gospel, comes hope, and from hope comes change, according to Sanders.
"Wherever religion has gone, whether it's religious or secular like Communism it enslaves people. Religion can dilute the message," he said. "But wherever the gospel goes, it frees people."
Sanders will return in July to help Jamaican deaf minister Damian Campbell train other deaf ministers.
"The children have this understanding," Bishop said, "it's 'you are the same as me.' The more people that know the language, the more people you have to communicate with."
The church members already are planning their next trip.
"Here, I just got a text from Jerry," Sanders said Thursday inside the ministry's small headquarters in Central Peoria. "'I was just wondering . . . October and November, we'll go to Jamaica again?'
Information from: Journal Star, http://pjstar.com