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Marty Dunagan, director of Achieve Learning Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., right, signs with Raymi Robles Friday during a crafts session at the school for children with hearing loss.


For more information about Tennessee Hands & Voices, Chattanooga chapter, contact Marty Dunagan at

Lindsey Sheaffer's son, Raymi, was 10 months old when she first began suspecting he was deaf. A pediatrician dismissed her concerns, saying it was "first-time mom jitters."

Six months later, after the birth of her second son, Sheaffer knew better. Her newborn responded to her voice. Raymi didn't. A different pediatrician confirmed her fears.

"I knew nothing about deaf culture or even what caused deafness," Sheaffer says, though she later learned Raymi's deafness was caused by a recessive gene carried by both parents. "We jumped right into hearing aids and had someone work with us on sign language and audio verbal therapy, but after months of not seeing any benefit from his hearing aids, we started the process for cochlear implants."

While many children with hearing loss fare well with cochlear implants, Raymi struggled, Sheaffer says.

The parents were frustrated with the results on the implants and, to make matters worse, they learned Raymi's school for children with hearing loss was closing. They were living in North Carolina at the time and research lead them to Achieve Learning Center (an affiliate of the Speech and Hearing Center) in Chattanooga, where they moved so Raymi could enroll at the center.

Achieve Learning Center is a school for hearing-impaired and speech/language-impaired children. It's housed in an inclusive classroom setting, mixing those who are impaired with typically developing children.

Through the school, the Sheaffers were introduced to Tennessee Hands & Voices, a program that provides families with resources, networks and information needed to improve communication access and educational outcomes for their children -- a program that would change their lives, Sheaffer says.

Marty Dunagan, director of Achieve Learning Center and an active member of Tennessee Hands & Voices, says the program's outreach activities, parent/professional collaboration and advocacy efforts are focused on enabling deaf and hard-of-hearing children to reach their highest potential.

"I attended preschool here and received speech therapy through junior high from the Speech and Hearing Center," says Dunagan, who has worked with these children and their families for nearly 30 years. "I am deaf myself and I know how hearing-impaired children learn and the struggles they go through, therefore, I know what it takes to help them succeed."

Tennessee Hands & Voices is also an avenue for families to meet one another and socialize, she says.

"It has been a blessing to see the parents and community come together without bias and just share stories. We even have parents from the North Georgia area involved. It is just an awesome organization," says Dunagan, who won Miss Tennessee USA in 1985.

Hands & Voices began in Colorado in the 1980s and has since spread nationwide, with chapters in 32 states, including Tennessee and Georgia. The Chattanooga chapter was established last September.

In 2010, Melanie Bacon, of Memphis, helped organize the first chapter of Hands & Voices in Tennessee. She is the mother of a deaf child.

"Tennessee Hands & Voices is unique, in that we are a statewide, parent-driven, professional collaborative, unbiased toward communication choices and we specialize solely in deaf and hard-of-hearing children and their families," she says. "All of those aspects are equally important, but the parent-driven piece is what truly sets us apart. We are addressing needs that we have experienced personally."

Julie Beeler, of Knoxville and a Tennessee Hands & Voices board member, says that in 2011, 62 babies born in Tennessee were diagnosed with permanent hearing loss, and the statistics are probably higher than reported, she says.

"There are some children who are not identified early or their hearing loss isn't reported to the state's Newborn Hearing Screening Office," Beeler says.

Sheaffer says Tennessee Hands & Voices has helped her entire family.

"As a parent of a special needs child, you need support," she says. "In our group, we have deaf adults who grew up with hearing parents, we have professionals who have worked with families of deaf children for more than 30 years, and we have deaf educators and families with grown deaf children and families with young deaf children. I love that my son, Raymi, can be around kids and adults who are like him."

Tennessee Hands & Voices also offers a wealth of information regarding children and hearing loss, Sheaffer says.

"It was not until I got plugged in with other families of deaf/hard-of-hearing kids and deaf professionals that I learned about many of the resources available and special events happening for the deaf community in Chattanooga," she says.

"Being a part of this group has influenced the choices I am making about my son's education," she says. "I had planned to send him to a deaf education program in a public school, where he would be mainstreamed with an interpreter and pulled out of class to a resource room with a deaf education teacher when needed."

She changed her mind after attending one of the Tennessee Hands & Voices meetings in which deaf professionals shared their childhood experiences. One particular story had a profound effect, she says.

"One person shared that, when she was 12 years old, she met her first deaf adult, and she was so relieved to know that she was not going to die because of being deaf," Sheaffer recalls. "Right then I knew that I want Raymi to be around people who are like him, understand him and can communicate with him. I want him to know that he's not the only deaf person in the world."

She chose to send her son to a deaf school rather than a public or private school, she says, and now Raymi's main mode of communication is sign language.

"Even though we are now signing with Raymi, we still have hopes that he will speak and hear well with his cochlear implants," she says. "But Marty and Tennessee Hands & Voices have helped us understand that either way, he is going to be OK. We are all going to be OK."

Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at or 423-757-6396. Follow her on Twitter at Subscribe to her posts on Facebook at nazorhill.