Interest high in communicating with the deaf
By Flori Meeks
March 11, 2014
When the nonprofit Houston organization, Be An Angel, offered a free course in American Sign Language last fall, teacher Sheila Johnstone expected 15 to 20 people to register.
More than 200 responded, and the class at T.H. Rogers Elementary School drew people from as far as The Woodlands, Sugar Land, Pearland and Huffman.
That kind of interest, Johnstone says, is a good sign.
And that’s why Be An Angel, which serves children with multiple disabilities and/or profound deafness, has continued the free training.
“People want to communicate with the deaf,” Johnstone said. “They may have children, grandchildren, sisters or brothers who are deaf, and they’ve never been able to communicate with their relatives. Maybe they work in health care or they’re teachers.”
Those who’ve completed beginners’ American Sign Language training can take a 10-week intermediate class 6-7 p.m. Wednesdays – the same night Be An Angel’s last beginners’ course was held – beginning April 9.
A new beginners’ class will start meeting 6-7 p.m. Mondays, beginning April 7. When this beginners’ course is completed, another intermediate course will start meeting on Mondays and a new beginners course will start on Wednesdays.
All classes meet at T.H. Rogers Elementary School, 5840 San Felipe.
A key to these classes, Johnstone said, is practice in the class setting.
“I insist after they learn their numbers and alphabet that they get in front of the class,” Johnstone said. “You have to get used to it.
“In this class, it’s not only a matter of gaining knowledge, it’s getting up there and building confidence. And you have someone there who can correct you. That’s very different than learning from a book. It’s almost like getting up to do a performance, and then you say, ‘Wow, I can do it.’?”
Johnstone, a Tanglewood resident who was raised in St. Louis, has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in molecular biology in addition to her degree in ASL.
She worked in a laboratory at the Washington University Medical School and at University of Miami Medical School before creating her own business as a medical/legal research consultant. Her company advised law firms nationwide and offered a records-organizing service named “Order in the Court.”
After moving to Houston, Johnstone lectured at the University of Houston Law School and served on the Health/Law Policy Institute Board.
Johnstone also is a dancer and a pianist. It was the dancer in her, she says, that fell in love with the beauty of ASL the first time she observed it. She went on to train in the language and earn the highest proficiency possible.
“When I retired, one of the things I wanted to do was give back and be helpful to the deaf community,” Johnstone said.
Johnstone connected with Be an Angel through Uptown resident Richard Tyler, who she’s known for seven years. Tyler is a former chairman of the board for Be An Angel and a current advisory board member.
Last year, Johnstone asked Tyler to introduce her to the principal of T.H. Rogers, which serves more than 75 profoundly deaf students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade through Houston Independent School District’s Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Johnstone, who was retired, was hoping to read to students and possibly teach some sign language classes.
Tyler organized a meeting with her, the principal and Marti Boone, executive director of Be An Angel, and they developed the idea to offer free community classes at the school. Tyler has been underwriting the cost of the classes.
Johnstone has found teaching the Be An Angel courses to be even more rewarding than she expected.
“I feel good in my heart and soul when people come along from nothing,” she said.
Johnstone said she wouldn’t be able to provide this training without the teaching mentorship and encouragement she has received from Kareena Heath, Kathy Walters and Darla Connor.
Midtown resident Telesia Spivey is one of the students in Johnstone’s current intermediate class. She wants to apply her growing American Sign Language skills to her volunteer work with the deaf.
“I so enjoy the class,” Spivey said. “Everyone has a technique. Sign language doesn’t always work the same for everyone. We’re all learning together, and I like that.”