On Ash Wednesday night, snow did not stop a group of deaf and hearing-impaired from worshiping together at the Advocate St. Stephens Methodist Church at 5213 Germantown Ave. The evening began with a meal. They ate homemade chicken noodle soup. During the worship service following the meal many used American Sign Language (ASL), to sing traditional hymns like, “Amazing Grace.” More importantly, everyone caught up with each other sharing important details of their lives.
The Germantown Deaf Ministry Fellowship officially began in 1998. But the founder and director Rosalind McKelvey unofficially began supporting the deaf in 1976. McKelvey said, their mission is to work hand-in-hand with faith based, educational and community organizations. They strive to promote self-pride and collaboration creating a safer, and more informed community. Although, the group struggles with limited funding they have a positive impact on the community.
“They’ve helped me to realize that I’m not alone in this world, and that there’s other people out there like me,” said Chauncey Huggins, speaking and signing in ASL.
“I didn’t know I was the only one that was hard of hearing. I’ve learned sign language. They have helped me to learn about deaf schools that were in the USA that I could attend, that other people knew sign language and I could communicate with them.”
Huggins says she was mainstreamed all her life in school. Along the way, she had to transfer schools, and could not find out how to pull it off. McKelvey approached the Philadelphia School District for her and cut through the governmental bureaucracy. Huggins is now a freshman at Cabrini College and plans to transfer to Temple University next fall.
McKelvey advocates strongly against the isolating treatment by schools toward the deaf and hard of hearing, arising largely from the prohibitive costs of hiring interpreters and transcribers. “First I like to say [they are] the diverse ability community, not the disability community. But … if they want to go to classes, they need an interpreter or someone who understands and presents it in a way they understand. You know in the least restrictive environment.”
David Williams has experienced the restrictive environment that McKelvey is constantly fighting against. William signs as McKelvey translates. “I go to work they say no, and they say, “Oh your deaf” and you know, activity, I can do things the same in the world.” Williams continued, “Deaf can go to school, they can compete, they can do sports, deaf read, deaf can preach, we eat, there’s a whole list of things deaf can do.”
The Germantown Deaf Ministries Fellowship is important part of Williams’ life. McKelvey and the Fellowship supported Williams’ to help him deal with the death of his mother from cancer.
The Fellowship sponsors and participates in many community activities. They have family fun and game nights and woman’s teas. One upcoming event is an international woman’s tea at the Germantown Friends School. This program will be in 12 languages, including four different sign languages, Chinese, Russian, American, and Kenyan.
The fellowship works with the Wakefield 49ers community group and has the only deaf town watch in the city. They teach the community about ASL and how to prepare disaster go-kits for an emergency. They also, have a deaf advisory board for the city’s Department of Emergency Management.
Since the Haitian earthquake the fellowship has been trying to reach out to the Haitian community. The ministry has attempted to locate children from the deaf school in Haiti. McKelvey and the group would like to send aid and inquiries to make students at that school are safe. “I’ve called the Red Cross, I’ve called the Today Show, and the United Methodist Church…they were not even able to talk about what happened to the people there,” said McKelvey. She has not heard any updates from Haiti, “I’m praying and waiting for feedback.”
The fellowship has received some funding from their City Council person and sometimes they get grants. Unfortunately, 2010 has been a harsh year for this organization. McKelvey explained their money is quickly gone and most of their workers work for free. “They try to give us support because we need more money,” said McKelvey. “ We don’t even have a telephone, a building, a post office box.”
McKelvey would like to work full time in devotion to the ministry, although she has been tied to a separate job as a means to support herself. For 20 years, she worked for the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Germantown. But recently, McKelvey lost her job. However, she has friends and volunteers making calls to try to make up for the shortfall of the organization now that her own ability to fund the work has been reduced.
“We’re gonna keep doing what we’ve always been doing,” said McKelvey.