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Signs of God

Special Issue | Program brings literacy and the gospel to the deaf

Issue: "Effective Compassion," Sept. 1, 2007

HAPPY HANDS EDUCATION CENTER

Is this an ordinary horse farm for kids on a summer day? A teacher kneels to tie the shoelaces of a spirited boy in the group. Another instructor shows young girls how to turn the jet-black mane of the horse between them into their own personal "My Little Pony" braiding station. Off in the distance the controlled trot of a saddled horse is barely audible above the laughter coming from a different young boy.

But there's a difference: The children are students from Happy Hands Education Center. Nearly all of them will never hear a clear-spoken word, listen to an iPod, or even notice the sounds a horse farm offers. They're deaf.

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Happy Hands Educational Center is the only Christian school for the hearing impaired in Oklahoma, and one of only a handful nationwide. Specifically designed for children with hearing loss experienced from birth to kindergarten, Happy Hands is an accredited, private institution that aims to bring literacy and Jesus to deaf students and their families. Founder and CEO Al Proo established Happy Hands in a blue-collar neighborhood of Tulsa, inside a three-story home-turned-school owned by an adjacent, nondenominational church.

Happy Hands' strategy includes use of skilled teachers (they must have a degree in either Deaf Education or Early Childhood Development) and a Bible-themed curriculum; the school also emphasizes intentional, consistent interaction with the parents and siblings of each student. Students spend their time at Happy Hands year-round as they work with specialized language and physical therapists, teachers, and volunteers.

During a school day, students and teachers move hourly from themed station to themed station throughout the building. A young girl in the Science Center matches the pictures of a mother cow and her baby calf, which she must identify in sign language to her instructor. Chapel time brings a Bible story and a simple application. In the Home Living Center, students perform in plays and skits, such as a reenactment of the David and Goliath story.

Single mom Rose Drake recalls when her daughter Audrey was a toddler and doctors told her that Audrey was going deaf. The Tulsa Speech and Hearing Association directed Drake to Al Proo and his school: "I knew the first day I walked into Happy Hands that our lives were about to change. You could just feel the warmth and love in every room of the building. They poured the love of Jesus into me on a daily basis. They gave and gave and gave and never stopped. They provided Audrey with a scholarship for her entire stay, no if's, and's, or but's. Anytime I had a need, whether spiritual or educational, they were there."

Drake said that Audrey today is "totally mainstreamed as she is set to enter the seventh grade. She signs fluently. She speaks with clarity and confidence. She reads at her age-appropriate level. My daughter is comfortable in the deaf culture as well as the hearing world. My kiddo is educated and bilingual because of this place."

The story of Happy Hands began in 1979 when Proo professed faith in Christ. Already a Tulsa police officer, Proo became pastor of a local hearing-impaired church in 1985 and also worked as a sign language translator and interpreter for the Oklahoma court system. He saw neglect of deaf children firsthand and learned that the average deaf adult in America has the reading level of a fourth-grader. Even more urgent in his mind was the fact that only 1 percent of deaf adults were Christians.

In 1994 Proo opened the Happy Hands doors in the belief that parents and public-school teachers didn't know how to teach deaf children effectively. Hearing-impaired kids were being left without a language of their own and couldn't communicate with anyone. Deaf kids who weren't taught to read and write early in life became deaf adults who were without the basic skills necessary for even the most mundane of jobs. For those sorry souls, Proo thought, even Bible reading and its potential for spiritual growth was nearly impossible.

Happy Hands' Program Director Jan Pride, a former public-school teacher, came to understand how many parents could not communicate with their deaf children when one mother asked her to explain the changes taking place in the young girl's body as she approached puberty. "

That is the job of a mother, and I saw just how important it was going to be for us to educate both student and parents," Pride explained.

Only 20 percent of Happy Hands' income comes from tuition, which is based on the ability of families to pay. Donors contribute the remaining 80 percent. Since the school takes no federal or state funds, lesson plans and curriculum can have spiritual components. Fundraising for a new $4 million building begins this fall, and the need for a new facility is pressing: Happy Hands' current building can't house more than 30 students and there is a six-year waiting list.

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