Baylor University deaf education lecturer Lewis Lummer comes from four generations of deafness, and he’s leading an effort to offer a Christian school experience for deaf children.

American Sign Language is his native language, and he had similar experiences as other deaf children growing up: limited access to resources, to opportunities and to Christian-focused teachings, he said as his hands moved swiftly with excitement and interpreter Lori Wrzesinki translated to spoken English.

“I had a deaf family, and we did go to a particular church, but we didn’t have a children’s ministry for the deaf,” Lummer said. “I never went until I finally met a deaf pastor, and the deaf pastor signed. That was about age 18. Prior to that, we didn’t really have anything. We’d go on Wednesday nights, and we’d have an interpreter, but again, I didn’t know the Lord. I didn’t understand.”

Lummer has since worked diligently to overcome barriers to his education, earning an associate degree in civil engineering, a bachelor’s degree in international studies in communication arts, a master’s degree in deaf education and deaf studies, and a Ph.D. in literacy.

For more than 10 years, the former kindergarten through 12th-grade educator has dreamed of helping deaf children break educational barriers while also offering a Christian-based educational foundation.

Now, he and six others are establishing Texas’ first fully functioning, tuition-free Christian Academy for the Deaf this fall by raising $160,000 for the first year. The group chose Waco because of the city’s location, Lummer said.

“Many parents don’t have an opportunity to send their children to a school such as this,” Lummer said. “Other options hearing people have are home schooling, etc., but here deaf children can come, and we can provide equal access to everything right here, possibly to someone from Dallas, Austin, Houston. This could be a central area here and kind of a hot hub for deaf education.”

The academy, a nonprofit group paid for through fundraising efforts, is expected to be at 4224 S. University Parks Drive, not far from Baylor University. The school’s board of directors is in the process of negotiations for the property, but the directors, three of whom are deaf, said doors should open in September.

Serve K-12 students

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Christian Academy for the Deaf

Waco’s new Christian Academy for the Deaf is expected to open in September at 4224 S. University Parks Drive.

The school will serve kindergarten through 12th-grade deaf students. It will start with just five to eight students, but officials hope to add a new grade level every year as more families learn about the campus and move to the area, Vice President Kathy Bartlett said.

“We’d also like this to become a facility other deaf organizations can use, like the Waco Association of the Deaf or the senior citizens group, to have the opportunity to serve the larger deaf community in Waco,” Bartlett said.

The group’s roots go back to 2009, with a deaf children’s ministry at the Church at Tree Lake in China Spring. In 2014, the ministry moved to a more dedicated location in a house provided by Highland Baptist Church in Waco, where older deaf children could teach younger ones as they perform Bible-related plays. Parents in the program met for free sign language classes Wednesday nights.

School districts throughout the state, including Waco ISD, offer regional day programs that allow hearing-impaired students to come from several school districts to a central location for education services.

While there are educational resources for deaf students, religious educational opportunities are limited, Christian Academy for the Deaf Secretary Ben Saage said. Saage has been Waco ISD’s coordinator for its regional day program for the deaf for four years and is working to avoid conflicts of interest with the new venture, he said.

“We have more than 100 churches in Waco that have Vacation Bible School in the summer and Sunday school classes every single Sunday, but those are not often accessible to a child who uses sign language to communicate,” Bartlett said. “There are three churches in Waco that provide interpreting services for their worship services, but the services for children who are different are very limited.”

Texas numbers

Texas has about 358,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing residents, second only to California, according to the Gallaudet Research Institute from Gallaudet University, a private school in Washington, D.C., where all programs accommodate the deaf and hard of hearing.

Christian School for the Deaf board member Wayne Hampton said he learned from Lummer that very few deaf people have the opportunity to participate in religion.

“Apparently, evangelism in the deaf community is a real weakness in the church,” Hampton said. “We really believe this school is really going to help meet that need.”

Board member Larry Umberger grew up in a mainstream education program at a public school and was dependent on the use of an interpreter, he said as Wrzesinki interpreted. There was no access to deaf culture, and communication was a constant challenge, the Gallaudet University graduate said.

Only much later in life did Umberger understand the word of God through sign language, he said.

“I read the Bible, but I couldn’t understand it,” he said of going to church growing up. “I didn’t have the background, so it was very frustrating for me. I remember one time going to church with whole family. They’re all hearing, not the same as Lewis’. He’s lucky his family was all deaf. … They were all singing, and I stood there and said, ‘Mom, what are they saying?’ But my parents could only sign a little bit, communication was still a challenge.

“I really needed an interpreter. Mom handed me the Bible and said, ‘Here, just read the Bible.’ I started reading, and I had no idea. I found the word, ‘the.’ I understood that. I found the word ‘a’ and ‘Jesus.’ I recognized the words, but I didn’t really comprehend. That was my experience going to church, and that was every Sunday.”

The new school will use research-based methods and American Sign Language to teach courses and faith-based curriculum and theology. The school will also have a heavy focus on helping deaf children expand literacy skills, which is critical because most deaf students graduate high school with a fourth-grade reading level, Lummer said.

“We hope to change that outcome,” he said. “Obviously, the Bible isn’t written at that level, but we want them to be able to have access to the Bible. We need to have a 12th-grade reading level.”

Fundraising goal

The building, which is 2,400 square feet, will feature a few classrooms, a kitchen, bathrooms, an outdoor play area and plenty of room to grow, Saage said. The board members just have to meet their fundraising goal before school can open, they said. If the board can’t raise the funds by September, the group will go to plan “B,” possibly using a room in a local church, Umberger said. Regardless of where it is, the school will happen, board members said.

For more information about the Christian Academy for the Deaf, visit www.christianacademyforthedeaf.org.

“I would like for these children to have that same feeling, that there’s nothing wrong with them, they can go ahead and use sign language,” Lummer said. “We don’t want them to feel different.”

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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