Wyoming United Methodist pastor, husband extend care for deaf to Africa

DOVER –– After serving a decade with the Wyoming United Methodist Church ministry as lead pastor, the Rev. Patti Collett Ravilious is retiring and following a passion brought to her by new members of the church and her husband, Carl.

It’s a passion that is taking her all the way to Africa.

Carl and the Rev. Patti Ravilious will join national members of the United Methodist Church in mid-June to visit deaf schools and organizations in Africa during a month-long tour. Mr. Ravilious, who is deaf, married Mrs. Ravilious, who is hearing, last summer. (Delaware State News/Ashton Brown)

Carl and the Rev. Patti Ravilious will join national members of the United Methodist Church in mid-June to visit deaf schools and organizations in Africa during a month-long tour. Mr. Ravilious, who is deaf, married Mrs. Ravilious, who is hearing, last summer. (Delaware State News/Ashton Brown)

After seeing a deaf man attend the church a couple of years ago, Mrs. Ravilious realized something needed to be done to make the church more inclusive to the hearing-impaired population.

“The church is now waking up and realizing that it’s great if we have more people coming to church, but they’re not going to come back if we don’t do anything to help them

understand,” she said.

In a mission to make the ministry more inclusive, Mrs. Ravilious consulted a group from Northern Delaware, one of whom turned out to be her future husband.

Mrs. Ravilious, who is hearing, and Mr. Ravilious, who is deaf, hit it off right away despite her knowing only minimal sign language.

“We got married less than a year ago and since we met, he’s been teaching me and I’ve also been taking lessons from our church’s interpreter,” she said.

The interpreter, Gail Garner, learned sign language when she was only a child.

“My grandfather was blind and deaf so I learned sign language by the time I was 8 and it’s something not a lot of people know. So I became an interpreter at various events, and have done it at things like the (Delaware) State Fair,” she said.

Mrs. Ravilious heard about Ms. Garner’s skills and knew it would be a perfect opportunity to realize her vision of a deaf-inclusive church.

“She approached me to ask if I could do one service a month and I said ‘sure,’” Ms. Garner said. “But once a month has turned into once a week and we even do classes to teach sign language now.”

Ms. Garner signs at every Sunday’s 11 a.m. service to accommodate the three deaf members plus Mr. Ravilious and co-teaches a sign language class every Monday night at 6.

Since meeting her husband and making Wyoming United Methodist deaf-friendly, Mrs. Ravilious’ eyes were opened to the deaf community’s history and needs.

An uphill battle

As they got to know one another, Mr. Ravilious began to tell his personal story of growing up deaf during the 1960s and 70s in Wilmington –– when most schools, even deaf ones, were not up to the challenge of adequately educating deaf children or properly integrating them into society.

Mr. Ravilious was born deaf, as a twin to a hearing sister. He struggled throughout his schooling, not due to a learning disability, but due to a weak deaf education system.

When Mr. Ravilious entered school around age 4 until junior high, all his classes used the “pure oral method,” a way of teaching the deaf without using sign language or hand signals of any kind.

“It was all speech. The teachers would just talk, talk, talk and none of us every understood anything so we just sat there,” Mr. Ravilious said through Ms. Garner’s interpretation.

Through the method, students were expected to learn solely by the difficult task of reading lips. Mouth movements provided absolutely no context for the students as to what was being said, let alone what was being taught in an academic lesson.

“The teachers would put newspapers down on our desks and we didn’t know or understand what they were, what any of the letters were but we were expected to read it,” Mr. Ravilious said. “I’d look at the cartoons, just the pictures, but never the print.”

After starting at his second school, which was in Pennsylvania, Mr. Ravilious’ parents bought him hearing aids, which his teacher was very strict about him wearing.

“The teacher would put on both aids and tell us to keep our hands down, to keep them in our laps but they didn’t help my hearing. They just creating noise in my head so I always took them out,” he said.

Mr. Ravilious and his classmates would get slaps on the wrists from teachers and staff for touching or taking out their hearing aids, but it didn’t deter the students.

“At the first couple of schools I didn’t learn anything because you’d just be talked at and expected to learn, and then there’d be the summers where you’d have a few months of no one even trying to teach you,” he said.

A breakthrough

It was only when he attended Lexington School for the Deaf in New York in 1964 at 8 years old that Mr. Ravilious was first exposed to sign language.

“I was scared going up there alone because even though I was 8, I didn’t know anything, not to read, nothing,” he said.

Gail Garner learned sign language when she was 8 because her grandfather was blind and deaf. She has since worked and volunteered as an interpreter. She now signs at every 11 a.m. Sunday service at Wyoming United Methodist. She also co-teaches a sign language course held at the church every Monday night. (Submitted photo/Wyoming United Methodist Church)

Gail Garner learned sign language when she was 8 because her grandfather was blind and deaf. She has since worked and volunteered as an interpreter. She now signs at every 11 a.m. Sunday service at Wyoming United Methodist. She also co-teaches a sign language course held at the church every Monday night. (Submitted photo/Wyoming United Methodist Church)

Even though he was exposed to sign language, it was only in secret because sign language was forbidden by the teachers.

Although secretly learning sign language was exciting, Mr. Ravilious and his classmates only had a vocabulary extending to letters.

In 1969, at age 13, Mr. Ravilious wound up at the Delaware School for the Deaf in Newark, then known as The Margaret Sterck School for the Hearing Impaired.

“The 1970s is when the whole idea of how deaf people think and learn was revolutionized,” Ms. Garner said. “There were so many improvements in such a short time.”

The Sterck School was the first place Mr. Ravilious was formally exposed to sign language and the first time he received school lessons that made any kind of sense to him.

“Before then, when I was taken to the library, I’d only look at the pictures in books because I could only read and understand a few words,” he said. “Before I went to the Sterck School and even my first year there I got an F, another F and another F. But by the time I graduated, I’d improved enough to be a C-plus student.”

The Delaware School for the Deaf remains the only deaf school in Delaware and provides a boarding option for students living Downstate. Typically students in Kent and Sussex counties will take the bus up to Newark on Monday mornings and not come home until Friday evenings.

“You have to consider, not only the distance from home to school, but many of the students don’t have anyone at home who’s fluent in sign language so in a lot of cases it’s better to board the student because they will be better off in the long run,” Ms. Garner said.

After his graduation from the Sterck School, Mr. Ravilious has successfully worked many trade jobs such as developing photos in dark rooms, packaging, shipping and working with machinery.

Throughout his working days, Mr. Ravilious, although able to hold steady work, constantly faced communication issues with coworkers and superiors.

“Luckily at one of his jobs, he had a coworker that would write notes to him because otherwise he’d just sit in meetings and not know what was going on,” Ms. Ravilious said. “And when there was problems with bosses or anything like that he was sometimes able to get an interpreter, but not very often.”

Mrs. Ravilious realized that all the problems her husband has faced can be attributed to the failure of education of the deaf and she’s decided to address the issue not only at her church but across the world too.

Trip to Africa

The pair will be traveling to Africa June 19 with a group of United Methodist Church members from across the country to visit deaf schools. The leaders of the month-long trip have gone to the area on deaf missions to Africa a dozen times.

Deaf schools in Africa are still up and coming so Mr. Ravilious is bound to meet children who are in the same shoes he was when he was a kid.

Only worse for the Africans is the stigma attached to deaf people, especially children. According to the Nzeve School for the Deaf in Zimbabwe ––one of the schools the church members will visit –– deaf children are seen as cursed, typically attributed to the mother’s actions. Deaf children are frequently taken to witch doctors to be “cured.”

“Even to this day, people in America view deaf people as mentally challenged or broken in some way. They assume they can’t learn or do anything,” Mrs. Ravilious said. “But that mindset is multiplied by 10 over there. They’re just pushed to the side of society and everyone kind of hopes they make out OK.”

The Nzeve School has been a pioneer of breaking stigmas against the deaf and advocating for their education. The facility began as only a preschool to give young deaf children sign language lessons and skills to help them in daily life but things quickly changed.

Soon after its opening, older kids were turning up at the school to learn too because, since they were deaf, they’d never had many learning opportunities before.

The school now caters to children from preschool to their late teens, focusing on everything from basic sign language to business skills.

“There will be four deaf men, including Carl, with us. So hopefully the kids will see these examples of success and realize their future can be bright too,” Mrs. Ravilious said. “And the teachers will realize that if we can successfully educate deaf people, they can do the same.”

Volunteer work

The United Methodist group will put in some time volunteering at the Nzeve School and Sanganai Work Project and Deaf Club in Zimbabwe and the Kaaga School for the Deaf in Meru, Kenya.

Although the deaf Africans are all either learning or fluent in sign language, they do not know American Sign Language so it will take the work of interpreters to clear communication road blocks.

“We will have some people who know some Zimbabwean and Kenyan sign language so that will be helpful. And all the hearing people, both American and African speak English,” Mrs. Ravilious said. “Surely there will be some charades along the way, a lot of acting stories out.”

The literal acting will come when the church members present Bible stories such as those found in Genesis, Noah’s Ark and Jesus’ birth.

Other than their spirituality, the church group is bringing tons of toys and arts and crafts for the children at the deaf schools.

“We will be living out of our carry-ons because we’re checking all of the things we’re bringing for the children,” Mrs. Ravilious said. “But the real thing we’re bringing is ‘Deaf Can.’ Deaf can do anything.”

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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