By Teresa Kazemir
Ten years ago, in June of 2007, I attended my very first Hands & Voices Leadership conference outside of Denver, Colorado. I will never forget the warm, welcoming, supportive and energizing feeling that radiated from that group of parents and professionals. It was like a family and I immediately felt that I belonged, regardless of our son’s hearing levels, what form of communication we used or what country we came from. Straight away, I thought that this was something we needed in British Columbia, especially for families of young babies that were just starting to be identified by universal newborn hearing screening through the BC Early Hearing Program.
“Hands & Voices … was like a family and I felt that I belonged, regardless of our son’s hearing levels, what form of communication we used or what country we came from.”
To back up a little…in 2006, as the BC Early Hearing Program was forming, a Parent Advisory Group (PAG) was established to help guide the process. Members of this volunteer group included Cathy Luther, Tammy Busch, Amy Ho, Jen Kipling, Shelley Mallinson and myself. Initially, the PAG was asked to provide input and feedback related to various aspects of the Early Hearing Program. We provided a parent perspective, while the professionals considered processes and procedures, and we also helped to develop materials and resources such as the website, brochures, and the family path (a brochure outlining the steps a family takes following hearing screening through to early intervention).
In 2007, the BC Early Hearing Program was ready to consider implementing a parent to parent support component of the program. Cathy Luther and I were sent to the Hands & Voices Leadership conference to explore whether Hands & Voices might be a good model for parent to parent support in BC. After many hours of discussion and debate, we came back with the recommendation that BC set up a Guide By Your Side program – and because Guide By Your Side is a Hands & Voices program, this also meant setting up a BC chapter of Hands & Voices.
The next several months was a flurry of activity – BC Hands & Voices was established as a non-profit society and invitations were sent out to various individuals to become the founding directors of the board. A mission statement and by-laws were created. An application was made to Hands & Voices Headquarters, which involved a great amount of correspondence as we were the first chapter established outside of the USA.
Mission Statement: BC Hands & Voices is a parent-driven, non-profit organization dedicated to supporting families with children who are deaf or hard of hearing. We are a parent/professional collaborative group that is unbiased towards communication modes and methods, believing that families will make the best choices for their children if they have access to good information and support.
Simultaneously, planning was underway to set up Guide By Your Side. This Hands & Voices program was to be overseen by the BC chapter, at the same time being fully funded by and part of the BC Early Hearing program. I was hired as the Guide By Your Side Parent Coordinator, and the first team of Parent Guides were selected (Amy Ho, Shelley Mallinson, Bobbi Best, Gillian Doan, Terri Dauvin). This was all accomplished by early March 2008, in time for our initial training with Leeanne Seaver and Janet DesGeorges, two of the founding members of Hands & Voices.
“There was a specific need for unbiased parent-to-parent support very early after identification”
Early on there was some confusion about who Hands & Voices was and why we needed a chapter here in BC. There were two other parent organizations already in existence – Family Network for Deaf Children (FNDC) and Canadian Hard of Hearing Association of BC Parents’ Branch (CHHA-BC Parents’ Branch). Through many meetings and discussions, we all came to agree that while FNDC and CHHA-BC Parents’ Branch both provided much-needed supports for families, they were focused on school–aged children. With the implementation of the BC Early Hearing Program and newborn hearing screening, it became clear there was a specific need for unbiased parent-to-parent support very early after identification. Thus BC Hands & Voices, unlike other chapters of Hands & Voices, has always focused on the specific age group from birth to 5 years, supporting families within the entire spectrum of communication choices and hearing levels.
“BC Hands & Voices … (is) focused on the specific age group from birth to 5 years, supporting families within the entire spectrum of communication choices and hearing levels.”
Over the past ten years, many of our founding members have transitioned off the board, and some Parent Guides have moved on to other jobs, but there has never been a lack of people ready and willing to embrace our philosophy and join us in our work. As a parent driven organization, our board is mostly parents of deaf and hard-of hearing children, but professionals working in this area complete our diverse team. I have felt privileged to sit at the table with so many parents and professionals from diverse backgrounds with a wealth of experience and expertise. We continually learn from one another – by stretching ourselves and listening to each other’s stories, we become better advocates for our children and better supports for other families.
So now, after 10 years on this journey, it’s time for me to step back a little. While I do enjoy ‘driving the bus’, it feels good to see other very capable parent leaders step up to take on those roles. I am not leaving BC Hands & Voices altogether, but I am happy to see that it has become a strong organization that is no longer dependent on one or two specific individuals to keep it alive. My feelings are similar to when our oldest child moved out ‘permanently’ – I’m proud, relieved and optimistic, yet I know I will have to hold back a little and refrain from interfering or taking over. Parenting an adult is quite different from parenting a child. So I will strive to be available when needed, but also to respect that there are different ways of doing things. I look forward to this next phase with BC Hands & Voices, and I am happy that I am able to continue working with such a wonderful group of people!