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June 21, 2004

Sign language changes lives of woman, girls

From:, MS - Jun 21, 2004


BAY ST. LOUIS - More than a dozen years ago, Yvette Hawkins wondered how to get through to her 5-year-old cousin, a deaf girl who got into frequent brawls with her playmates.

Questioning whether the girl's frustrations stemmed from a lack of communication with those around her - even her parents had not learned sign language - Hawkins sat her cousin down, asking her to demonstrate some of the language's basic motions.

"I let her teach me one word at a time," Hawkins said, adding that their sessions soon produced a page full of words. "The moment I started with her, I saw it changed her attitude completely. She began to calm down and she trusted me because I took that interest in her."

Today, Hawkins, 36, of Waveland, credits that experience with showing her the inherent healing properties of sign language - powers she believes are not restricted solely to the deaf.

In fact, several years ago, she founded her own church group, Worshipping Hands Community Sign Language Ministry, where she helps nearly a dozen girls, none of whom is deaf, learn the language and incorporate it into gospel hymns and other songs.

Hawkins said she started the ministry, which she runs out of the Powerhouse of Deliverance Church in Bay St. Louis, out of the belief that sign language teaches the girls "to walk in someone else's shoes," which, in turn, infuses a sense of importance into their own lives.

"We've had some students who have really gone through a lot and were thinking negatively," she said. "Sign language allows them to express themselves in a more positive way. And it's something the kids are interested in because it grabs their attention and it's fun."

Those lessons have sprouted a ministry choir group, in which the girls sing along to the hymns, their arms and bodies flowing through the signing motions. Some even have solo parts, and the girls use facial expressions, as well as their bodies' motions, to convey the song's meaning.

"I sometimes have trouble with the expressions," said Jessie Lewis, 14, of Bay St. Louis, adding that she now practices each day before a mirror. "But the songs are fun because you can minister to people, even without them knowing it."

The group's performances often have a profound effect on congregations.

"We've had services where there's not a dry eye in the room," Hawkins said. "Sign language is very beautiful when you see it. It captures the audience, and, when the song is finished, you're able to feel what the songwriter is talking about."

Lately, the group has been practicing several times a week to perfect its craft. Later this week, 10 of the group's members will travel to San Francisco, where they will assist in the church district's fund-raising drive by performing before several congregations.

The group's members, who are still raising money to pay for the trip, said they're excited to bring their ministry to a new audience.

"That's what it's all about," said Myra Haynes, one of the group's assistants. "Because when you're ministering, you'll never know who might need that song."

© 2004 The Sun Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.