Happy Hands Provides One-of-a-Kind Education

Managing Editor

COMMUNICATION ADVOCATES: From left, Happy Hands Education Center Board President Mishelle Embry, Happy Hands Executive Director Jan Pride, Founder Al Proo and Board Intern Aimee Cooper stand with two Happy Hands students during the nonprofit organization’s October fundraising luncheon “Be the Story.”

EMILY RAMSEY for GTR Newspapers

Al Proo recognized a problem, asked questions and, then, took steps toward a solution.

Thus began the journey of Happy Hands Education Center, a school for children with hearing loss and/or communication disorders.

Proo and his wife became professional American Sign Language interpreters after getting involved in a deaf group at their church in 1980.

After moving to a deaf church to provide further aid to the deaf community, Proo was asked to assume the role of pastor.

For the next almost two decades, “we almost had no hearing friends; we were fully immersed in the deaf culture,” Proo says.

As he and his wife made their way deeper into the deaf community, “we saw that many of the deaf had a problem with reading and writing. I thought, ‘why is this? It’s sad,’” Proo remembers.

Proo approached deaf individuals and area deaf education instructors to find out why. “I found out that there was no early intervention services for deaf children before three years old,” he says.

However, 75 percent of brain development, or brain growth, happens in the first three to five years of life. By six years old, the brain is 90 percent of its adult weight, and 95 percent of lan-guage has been developed.

“Yet, here’s a deaf child that can’t acquire language because he/she does not get that founda-tion,” Proo says.

“We would see kids come into kindergarten with not nearly what they need in regard to lan-guage and then see that gap continue to widen each year to the point that we would see deaf or hard of hearing children graduating high school at second-to-fourth-grade reading levels,” says Jan Pride, who succeeded Proo as executive director of Happy Hands three years ago.

In addition to lack of early deaf education options, the problem had also formed due to the lack of early hearing testing, which has changed over the years as technology and awareness of the need has improved, Pride continues.

“Happy Hands works with local agencies in identifying hearing loss as early in life as we can. That way we are finding these children when they are very young, often between two and six months, instead of at four years old when they’ve already begun to develop behavioral issues,” she says.

Once Proo received his answer to why many deaf individuals dealt with illiteracy, Proo surveyed the situation. “I concluded that we needed to do something about this,” he says.

Thus, on Sept. 1, 1994, he and his wife opened Happy Hands, with the mission of providing learning and language to children up to six years old.

“We do whatever we have to do to get children to communicate,” says Proo.
Pride joined the school in 1997 as program manager, bringing with her 15 years of experience as a public school deaf education teacher.

With her background, Pride was able to help the nonprofit organization transition from a li-censed child care center to a fully accredited school and expand its offerings to include kindergarten-aged children.

Happy Hands offers infant, toddler, preschool and kindergarten programs, before and after school care, and speech and language therapy.

“No one else in the state is doing what we’re doing,” says Proo. “Happy Hands is here to eliminate deaf illiteracy.”

In May 2010, Happy Hands moved from its previous location, a 1,600-square-foot house at 32nd Street and Hudson Avenue, into a 22,000-square-foot facility at 8801 S. Garnett Rd., thanks to a $6.8 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.

Since we were building our facility, “we had the opportunity to tailor the building to our students’ needs,” says Pride. That included providing the proper lighting and using certain colors that are easy on students’ eyes, creating separate therapy rooms, using building materials that provide good acoustics to benefit students who are not deaf, and making the building accessible with ramps and wide hallways for students with various disabilities.

Happy Hands currently has a one-year waiting list; it reached full capacity last year, with approximately 66 full-time students and a few part-time students.

Happy Hands, however, is not focused solely on its students. The school also provides services for families and parents to help them move past their child’s “disability” into acceptance, Pride says.

Once that occurs, parents can begin to learn how to communicate with their child.
“When a parent can’t communicate with their child, that child is isolated unless the parent learns his/her language,” Pride says. “We help the parent give the child language.”

Happy Hands also accepts the siblings of deaf or hard of hearing students into their program.

“Often, it’s the hearing child who helps the parent turn the corner in learning sign language,” she says.

For the future, Pride expects to see Happy Hands’ program offerings grow to include various therapy and child care services all in one location in order to provide easy accessibility for their students and their families.

“Our goal is that at Happy Hands, we educate the child, nurture the family and build hope,” says Pride.

Happy Hands is currently offering free tours that are open to the public. Tours are one hour and come with a complimentary lunch. Visit happyhands.org for more information, or call 918-893-4800.

Updated 11-24-2015

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