Listen With Your Heart

by Robin L. Flanigan

Knowing the deaf in Ethiopia are fighting for basic human rights, two graduate speech-language pathology students from Nazareth College’s School of Health and Human Services traveled there last summer to help educate and empower.

“I wasn’t going there to be a good person, to think I was going to be able to fix all these injustices and inequalities,” says Catherine Beers ’14G from Peekskill, N.Y. “The change has to come from the Ethiopian people. But at the very least I could go and listen. At the end of the day, it’s about human connection. This trip was a responsibility.”

By their own initiative, Beers and classmate Mary Grace Hamme ’14G spent two weeks on the mission trip, sponsored by the International Medical Health Organization, with volunteers from around the world.

Their goal was to advocate for a community isolated and stigmatized yet resilient and thirsty for opportunity. Through discussions and hands-on activities with adults and children, the deaf and the hearing, they aimed to help make a difference more than 7,000 miles from home. Hamme had gone on the same trip a year earlier.

“It was supposed to be a one-time thing for me, but I fell in love with the project and the people I was working with and I had to go back,” says the Rochester native, who is also enrolled in the deafness specialty preparation program. “Humans across the world have the same wants and needs, and we can learn from each other.”

They started the trip in the capital city of Addis Ababa, where they toured the Deaf Development and Information Association, an organization that promotes independence, skills training, and sports activities for deaf people. Afterward, they helped facilitate a two-day workshop at Addis Ababa University to, in part, spur discussion about how the deaf and hearing can work as allies.

“By the second day, you could feel the energy and excitement,” recalls Beers. “You could see the change. We just provided the space for people from the deaf community to really be heard, to have their story validated.”

In Bahir Dar, they worked and played with deaf students who have only four grades available to them and teachers not fully trained in Ethiopian Sign Language. Art projects and games allowed the children to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, and “created opportunities for creativity, discovery, and joy,” says Beers.

Lisa Durant-Jones, Ed.D., CCC-SLP, graduate program director for the speech-language pathology program, has seen a recent increase in the number of students wanting to work with diverse populations worldwide.

“Students are definitely seeing the value of being more global in terms of the work they can do out of their comfort zone,” she explains. “These two are remarkable, and I believe their willingness to seek out this opportunity in a real and meaningful way is one of the most powerful outcomes of a strong connection between the liberal arts and professional programs.”

Aside from being a personally transformative experience for the women, the trip to Ethiopia played a pivotal role in their professional training and will undoubtedly impact their future careers. They practiced working collaboratively in interdisciplinary settings—across four languages, no less (English, American Sign Language, Amharic, and Ethiopian Sign Language)—and saw the importance of listening to other people’s perspectives.

For now, they’re continuing their support hosting fundraisers and drumming up interest on campus for future trips. Both plan a return visit.

Says Hamme, “I’m addicted now.”

Robin L. Flanigan is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York.