Your mother’s voice, a beautiful song, a baby’s cry, the laughter of a friend – what if you could not hear any of these sounds?
In El Salvador, Central America, an estimated one-fourth of the population is deaf.
CICS, Deaf Ministry in El Salvador, is a small school for the deaf. Several years ago I worked there as the Dorm Mother to a teenage girl for two years, and those people and that place still hold a special place in my heart. I wonder sometimes what the future looks like for the students I interacted with, playing games at recess and enjoying their hearty laughter even when they couldn’t hear mine.
The school was begun by a Salvadoran, Mennonite family with the vision to be a boarding school. During the time I worked there, only one boy and one girl boarded there through the week. The rest of the nine students were local and were picked up and dropped off in the school’s van every day. The students’ ages ranged from 6 to 17, but their age did not determine their grade. The 17 yr. old was starting her first year of school, so she began learning the alphabet with the 6 yr. old. She could already lip-read, however, and when prompted, could say quite a few words.
The teachers, Salvadoran and American Mennonite volunteers, taught the children American Sign Language (ASL) and written Spanish. Classes were held from 8-12, Monday through Friday. At noon we would all eat lunch together – the director’s family, the students, and all the staff – three teachers, cook, dorm mother, and dorm father/maintenance. The children were assigned to help with the dishes and putting away food. After lunch was cleaned up, we all went to the Chapel building for a time of singing and a Bible story before they were dropped off at home. The school year in El Salvador runs from February through October, and their rainy season happens during June, July, and August. Countless times, I remember rushing out to the clothesline to bring in the laundry when it started to rain.
The responsibilities for my position included a lot of laundry and cleaning in the mornings, and in the afternoons, a little cooking and doing life with the 14/15 yr. old girl who stayed there all week. I helped her with her homework, walked with her to buy things at the tienda (shop) next door, coached her in cutting out and sewing several dresses, and tried my best to explain fractions to her when she was baking and needed to multiply her recipe. She was so fun and full of life – eager to learn, asking questions about things she read in her Bible, and playing pranks on everyone! Some of the things she told me about her family and home life saddened me. Her father drank, and none of her family supported her desire to be a Christian and dress modestly, but she tried hard to do what was right and be a missionary in her home. Hearing her stories made me extra grateful for my loving, Christian family. I don’t know what I would have done if my father tried to burn my dresses and veils. What would you do?
My first year was hard, even though I enjoyed the warmth of Central America, the new and different foods, and the friendliness of the people. As soon as I arrived, I went to a local Spanish school for two weeks before starting work at the deaf school and getting a crash course in ASL. Learning two new languages was a challenge, and some days all the new words and signs were so mixed up in my head that nothing came out right. My Spanish/English dictionary was invaluable, and a couple of the teachers were American, so I could always ask them questions. It was so rewarding to eventually be able to communicate, and everyone was very forgiving of my mistakes. One mistake that still makes me laugh is when I was handing out ham (jamon) sandwiches one day and asked someone if they wanted a jabon (soap!) sandwich.
My second year at CICS, I was the only American on staff, but I felt much more comfortable with the place, the people, and the languages. I thoroughly enjoyed my nine months there! I had learned how to take the bus to the places I wanted to go. I took my turn telling/signing the Bible story to the children in our devotional time after lunch on school days. I was also able to help interpret church services from Spanish to sign language for the deaf who attended church (current and former CICS students).
Something I learned from my time in El Salvador is that you get out of an experience what you put into it. Part of the reason I enjoyed living in another country was because of the time and effort I had put into embracing a new culture and learning the language. Yes, I was homesick at times, but it helped to view my time there as an adventure. All my new friends, deaf and hearing, had something to teach me about God, life, and myself. If I had spent a lot of time wishing myself at home, I would have missed out on making some amazing memories! I ate so much good food, visited a couple stunning beaches, climbed a couple mountains (one a dormant volcano), laughed so hard at times that I cried, and was just generally reminded that life is made up of moments – both good and bad. It’s up to us how we are going to respond to the moment – and to others in the moment.
So wherever you’re at in life, even if you didn’t choose your circumstances the way I chose to serve in El Salvador, decide to make life an adventure! Look for the ways God is at work in your life and in the world around you. Most of all, remember that each of us has value – not because we can or can’t hear, not because of what we can or can’t do, or how we look, but because we were created by a God of Love.
Thank you for your willingness to share this with us today Bethany Thompson! You are a blessing to many and your heart for people is beautiful.