Changing the Lives of Deaf Children


image: Deaf Abayudaya students signing “hello” (Photo by Laura Wetzler)

Deaf Abayudaya students signing “hello”.
(Photo by Laura Wetzler)

In 2008, during her yearly visit to Uganda, Laura Wetzler,* Kulanu’s Coordinator for the Abayudaya Jewish community, visited the economically impoverished village of Namutumba. For the first time, community members introduced her to six hearing-impaired children ages 4-15 who had never attended school and whose communication skills were limited to a few signs recognizable only by family members. ** Although Laura had visited the village before, she had no knowledge that these children existed. As in many societies with little or no experience meeting people with disabilities and superstitious of the reasons for them, families had kept the children hidden, fearful of exposing them to possible ridicule or bullying by others. As Laura noted in a recent report, the six Abayudaya children “had never met other deaf children or adults” and “were vulnerable and withdrawn”.

Laura could and would not leave these six children to a life of isolation and dependency. The children needed the opportunity to attend school, develop some practical skills and attend vocational training classes so they could achieve some level of economic security and independence. Just as important was giving them the self-confidence to communicate with others and to enable them to integrate more fully into the life of their community.

As a result of that initial meeting with the children, Laura began to search throughout eastern Uganda for a school that would be appropriate for these special needs children. She was accompanied on her quest by two Abayudaya students studying counseling at the university and by Hedy Cohen, a community volunteer and former deaf educator from Evanston, Illinois, who spends five or six weeks a year in the Abayudaya community working on health related issues. Their search led them to Sam Kateu and the Kavule Parents’ School for the Deaf outside of Mbale. (See page 18 for a history of the school.)


image: Kavule students practicing sign language (Photo by Lorne Mallin)

Kavule students practicing sign language
Photo by Lorne Mallin

But how would Kulanu support and oversee this very worthwhile project? In her determined and highly organized fashion, Laura created a proposal and budget that included tuition and boarding expenses for the six children, transportation, medical needs and parental visits. Sam Wamani, Abayudaya medical officer, would serve as the director and supervisor of the program. And Namutumba’s own Miriam Mulobole, a pre-school teacher at the Abayudaya elementary school and part time librarian, would serve as assistant director and monitor student progress.

But how to pay for it all?

Enter Dr. Liz Feldman, a family physician in Chicago. Dr. Feldman’s mother-in-law had learned about the Abayudaya community while watching a video on television entitled “Yearning to Belong” about the Abayudaya community’s conversion to Judaism. It was just the kind of story she thought her daughter-in-law would enjoy. She was right. When she saw the film, Dr. Feldman noted a name and number at the bottom of the screen for people who might want to help the community. The name was Laura Wetzler. Liz called and was referred to Hedy Cohen, also from Evanston, Illinois who, miraculously, lived only a few blocks away from Dr. Feldman and was deeply involved in the community. In the end, Dr. Feldman made a five-year commitment to raise the funds needed to pay for the deaf children’s schooling at the Kavule School.

Not only did Dr. Feldman fulfill her goal of raising approximately $2800/year (this is year number five) with the help of her synagogue community, but she discovered an organization on Facebook, the World of Children, that gave out humanitarian awards each year to men and women who had made a difference in the lives of children. Another miracle of coincidence! Working with Building Brighter Futures*, an English charity, Dr. Feldman nominated Kavule founder Sam Kateu who, in 2009, was chosen as an honoree. His reward: $50,000 to pay for improvements and necessities in the school. Moreover, World of Children arranged for the Canadian based Ryan’s Well, a former recipient of their humanitarian award to donate a well costing $14,000 that brought fresh water to the school.

Liz Feldman has visited Uganda only once. She spent three weeks working as a doctor in the Abayudaya community. She describes the visit as life changing.


image: Dr. Liz Feldman with Abayudaya children (Photo by Laura Wetzler)

Dr. Liz Feldman with Abayudaya children
Photo by Laura Wetzler

“I had no concept of poverty. We talk about poverty in the US. But in Uganda, there was often no running water, no electricity, no sanitation. People don’t know where their food is coming from.” When asked if she wants to go back, she says ruefully, “I would love to go back and take my family, but the cost of the tickets is so high. Somehow I feel it would be better to donate the money than spend it on our trip.”

In our conversation, Hedy Cohen shared with me what she has discovered in her seven or eight years as a volunteer in Uganda. “Schooling is very expensive in Uganda,” she noted. “As a result, parents often cannot afford school fees. So in very poor families, children take turns going to school. Some children don’t finish secondary school until they are in their mid-twenties. Also, they have an unusual system, if a child fails an exam, he/she has to repeat the whole grade again. Because of these issues and other problems, it is not unusual to find a classroom with children of all ages.”

As a result of these educational norms, the diversity in the ages of the six special needs Abayudaya students, who had no prior education, did not create a problem. They were able to attend the Kavule School and participate in any class that met their individual needs.

In the three years since the Namutumba students have attended the Kavule School, they have made great progress. For Laura Wetzler, it is a joy to see “the huge change in the lives of these children”. According to Laura, the children, now ages 8-20, “are communicating in the official deaf sign language used in Uganda as well as in written English. They are connecting for the first time with people outside of their families. They are blossoming. And they know they are not alone.” With their education has come personal changes as well. “The children are now more outgoing and happier and have hopes of facing adulthood with real life skills.”

Now that Liz Feldman’s five-year commitment is ending, Laura would love to find another volunteer or organization to take on the fundraising responsibility for this project that is so dear to her heart. If you would like to get involved, contact Kulanu.