Alachua church hears call to deaf ministry

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Alachua church hears call to deaf ministry

Feb. 10, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0796}

NOTE: A headshot of Jeff VanValey is available at

An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

When Jeff VanValey was searching for a summer mission opportunity for his church’s youth, he stumbled across a program that would take the congregation out of the state, out of the country and into a completely unfamiliar environment — the deaf community.

Jeff VanValey
“That’s the funny thing. It was totally random,” said VanValey, youth minister at First United Methodist Church of Alachua. “I was looking for a place our kids could focus and also provided an opportunity to work within their abilities.”

That goal led 33 middle school youth and five adults to Ringgold, Ga., in July 2007 to work at Harvest School for the Deaf, a ministry of Harvest Deaf Ministries in North Georgia. Buildings on the property include a dinning hall, dormitories and an old barn that houses a library, office and chapel.

VanValey calls the opportunity “a totally random pick” as a choice for the mission trip.

“That’s where the story begins,” VanValey said. “For the first time, many of us felt what it must be like to be a minority.”

Appreciating differences

VanValey said team members were the ones who were uncomfortable. They couldn’t sign, making communication very difficult.

“For the first time many of us saw how it felt to be immersed into a totally different culture,” VanValey said, “and how this very special culture is ignored.”

Nearly four of every 1,000 people are functionally deaf and nearly four of every 100 people are hard of hearing, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

There are an estimated 500,000 to 2 million people who use Sign Language as their primary language, and American Sign Language is the third most-used language in the United States after spoken English and Spanish.

VanValey said team members sometimes felt as if they were staying “in a totally different country.” Breakfasts, lunches and dinners prepared by non-hearing, non-speaking people provided unique challenges.

“How do you ask for the ketchup?” VanValey said. “You learn fast.”

“We also shared the same sleeping quarters,” he said. “When you’re a guest in someone’s house it is generally customary to say, ‘thank you.’ How do you know that in sign language? You learn quickly.”

The team cleaned up and repaired buildings, cut brush, and built decks, but VanValey says the real success of the mission trip was the exposure to their new friends. “We witnessed our kids join in with the deaf community. They were anxious to learn how to communicate and very willing to learn sign language.”

Fourteen-year-old Kayla McCarty said she loved the experience. “I’d been on mission trips before, but this was an amazing time,” she said.

McCarty said team members stayed in the student dorms and every night a deaf student named Sarah signed to them and an adult named Tom told them stories in sign language.

“We learned to sign better. … We learned a lot,” she said. “It was an amazing experience.”

Victoria Hilton, 15, agrees. “It was really cool to talk with people who can’t talk to most people,” she said. “During lunch, we’d sit at tables with deaf students, and they’d sign with us. It was a lot of fun. I could sign a little before, but I really picked up a lot more.”

Hilton says the group cleaned an abandoned home that had been donated to the school. They tore out the carpet and rebuilt the front and back porches so it would be livable again.

Nancy Hilton, Victoria’s mother, says the trip was a huge success. “When they came home, they were so excited about what had happened there,” she said. “They had done some sign language at home, but they really got excited about it there.”

Multiplying ministry

The trip had such a positive impact on team members two more ministry programs were launched because of it.

After returning from the trip, VanValey said the team and church leaders began asking questions to become familiar with the deaf community in their area.

“We spoke with people who were involved in the deaf community. We started sign language classes the end of January 2008 so we can personally get involved in the deaf community,” VanValey said. “Our church offers free signing classes to anyone who wishes to learn.”

The Rev. Rob Atchley, the church’s pastor, said nearly 40 people attended the first class and the church is hoping to add signing on Sunday mornings as a way to reach people in the community “who might wish to join us for worship.”

“Every day churches are incorporating all kinds of new technology and alternative styles of worship to reach people,” he said. “New worship services are added in other languages, so why not consider ‘signing’ as another language, another way to reach some wonderful people, and with a little effort on our part, enable them to reach us with the love of Christ.”

To the community and beyond

After the trip, while VanValey was telling Paul Emory, whom VanValey describes as the the “missions outfitter” at Grace United Methodist Church in Gainesville, about the success of the deaf ministry, Emory shared a story of his own, about a deaf mission in the Dominican Republic.

A student at a deaf school in Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic, signs, “I love you.” Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church, Alachua. Photo #08-0746. Web photo only.

He said Diane Sabado, a doctor, and Peggy Blivens, a missionary, are working with Missionary Ventures International to teach sign language and provide medical treatment to deaf children in Santo Domingo.

Missionary Ventures is an interdenominational organization that works with individuals and churches to develop churches, schools, feeding centers, orphanages, clinics and hospitals in more than 30 countries. The group has an office and ministry in Orlando, Fla., in addition to offices in several other countries.

The two women hold clinics in two local schools, but hope to build a clinic and school for the deaf.

VanValey says that conversation was God once again orchestrating an opportunity to reach the deaf through First United Methodist Church, Alachua.

“God put Paul Emory in my path … ,” VanValey said. “Disabled kids in third world countries don’t have a chance. They are tossed by the wayside.”

The church organized an exploratory mission trip and visited Santo Domingo in November 2007. “I found that the needs were great and the workers were few,” VanValey said.

On Jan. 27 VanValey and trip organizers invited members to a traditional Dominican Republic meal and showed a short video of the November trip to encourage them to consider supporting a mission trip to the Dominican Republic this summer.

“It would be wonderful to come together as the body of Christ and serve in the Dominican Republic,” VanValey said.

McCarty and Victoria Hilton are both hoping to be part of the mission team. “I’m very excited about the opportunity to go to the Dominican Republic and interact with the people there,” Hilton said.

VanValey says the invitation to be part of the trip is open to anyone who wants to join the church in “following God’s plan to new places and ministries.”

“Never in a million years would I have ever seen myself in the Dominican Republic,” he said. “God calls us to serve where the need is greatest.”

More information about the summer mission trip is available by contacting the church at 386-462-2443 or


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Skelley is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, Fla.

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