About a week after Glenda and Raphi Savitz welcomed their daughter Samantha to the world, they learned that she was deaf.
“She was the first deaf person we had known, so obviously it was a surprise and a challenge,” Glenda says. “We knew right away that we had to get involved in the deaf community, learn about the culture, and start getting fully immersed in American Sign Language.”
What the new parents didn’t know was that their neighbors in Newton, Mass., would decide they needed to start learning sign language, too.
The Savitzes had moved to their neighborhood — an enclave of about 100 houses, on a peninsula in the Charles River — just three months earlier. It’s a close-knit place where many families have lived for decades. When they moved in, Glenda says a neighbor stopped by to deliver a directory of everyone who lived in the neighborhood, complete with photos and contact information. She says their next-door neighbors called themselves “newbies” to the area – and they had been there 17 years.
“It gives you an idea that this is a place people don’t want to leave,” Glenda says.
It’s also a place where people are serious about being good neighbors. So when young Samantha was out and about with her parents, neighbors like Jill McNeil were frustrated that they couldn’t talk to her.
“We really wanted to communicate with her and play with her,” says McNeil, who lives across the street from the Savitzes. “And since she couldn’t learn our language, we thought we wanted to learn hers.”
McNeil and three other neighbors quietly signed up for local adult education classes in American Sign Language.
“We met a teacher there that we really loved, and we asked him if he would come here and teach more neighbors,” McNeil explains. “So that’s how it started.”
According to Glenda, 20 neighbors immediately signed up for the class.
It’s a specialized course: The instructor designs his lessons around the conversations the neighbors want to have with Samantha, who’s now an energetic and curious 3-year-old. For now, that means learning the words for toys, vehicles, colors and food.
As with any new language, learning ASL takes time. But McNeil says the classes are working.
“We know how to say, ‘Are you riding your bike?’ or ‘You have pretty new pink sneakers.’ There’s a dog across the street that she loves to play with. So we all know the sign for ‘dog.'”
McNeil adds, “Her parents translate for us because her fingers are very small right now and she signs very fast, so we’re trying and we’re getting better. … Her first sign to all of us is ‘friend,’ which feels very good.”
The classes have been such a hit that there are now two offerings, on two different weeknights, bringing the number of neighbors learning the language to about 40.
Glenda says she and Samantha visit at the end of nearly every session. The little girl will chat with the teacher and catch up with her friends. Many of the students are older neighbors whose children are now grown. But there are also younger parents, and two school-age girls.
As a result of that neighborly effort, Samantha moves with ease around the cul-de-sac where her family lives. She’ll stop in at neighbors’ homes just to draw pictures and chat.
“It’s absolutely amazing that she feels so at home and they’re signing to her,” says Raphi Savitz. “It’s like being surrounded by family.”
“We’re just so thankful that we live here and we’re surrounded by these wonderful people,” he says. “Our daughter is included and she’s happy. I couldn’t think of a better situation for us and for her.”
And they’re not the only ones who say they’re grateful.
“We are really enjoying the whole process, not only the learning of ASL, but the learning together,” says McNeil. “It’s made our neighborhood a closer place.”
Chad Campbell produced this interview for broadcast.