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With the help of an advocate family, a home for Alaska's deaf community in Anchorage

Posted: March 2, 2014 - 1:00am

A reader named Kari Miranda wrote me an email a few weeks ago that caught my attention in the first paragraph.

“Journalism, to me, (in my non-educated mind) is all about story-telling,” she wrote. “Not just factual statements covering the local buzz, but the stories and lives behind the ‘news.’” Her family had a story to tell, she said.

“My parents are deaf,” she went on. “Yes, note the plural. Parent(s). Which means both of them. (Can you guess how many times I’ve been asked that in my life? Smiles...).”

Her father is a mail carrier. Her mother works with the deaf community and does vocational counseling. She has a sister and a brother. All of them are hearing. They were born and grew up in Anchorage. All of that, though, is the story behind the news.

The news, she wrote, is this: Sharon and John Miranda, her parents and longtime advocates in the deaf community, are working with others on their largest project yet, a community center for Alaska’s nearly 3,000 deaf and 24,000 hard-of-hearing people. Legislative funding made it possible for a nonprofit they are working with to lease a building on Fifth Avenue and begin designing it, Kari wrote. This year, with good luck, the Legislature will give them what they need to renovate it and open the doors. Outside the deaf and hard of hearing community, the project has gone largely unnoticed. But in the community, the center is a watershed.

A few weeks after I read the email, I found myself at the kitchen table in the Miranda family house in East Anchorage. The Miranda children, Josh, 23, Kari, 25, and Shanna, 30, were there, as they often are even though they’re grown up. John cooked dinner and Sharon Miranda told me, though a sign language interpreter, how there had always been a hunger among deaf people in Anchorage for community. The center would serve that while meeting a larger need for services, like sign language interpretation and job counseling.

The Mirandas were high school sweethearts. They attended Gallaudet University, married and came to Alaska in the early 1980s. They moved here, they said, because they wanted to live self-reliant and independent lives.

Their children grew up a little like the children of immigrant parents. They are all fluent both in English and ASL. The Miranda children have advocacy in their genes, they told me. They are what’s known as CODAs, or Children of Deaf Adults. They’ve spent their lives trying to debunk myths about deaf people, they said. You’d be surprised how often people ask if their parents read Braille. And how hard it is for friends to believe that their father loves music and their mother likes to dance.

ASL, I didn’t know, is not a word-for-word translation from English. Instead, it’s closer to French. While most young people in the deaf community learn ASL and English, older deaf people or people who grow up in smaller communities might not read English or may not use traditional ASL. Instead they are “grassroots,” using a mix of ASL and homemade signs.

Help for the deaf has waxed and waned over the years, Sharon told me. When it has waned, people in need have found their way to her and John. Maybe they need housing. Or help with interpretation. Or even just assistance reading a utility bill. They have been an unofficial safety net.

“What we’ve seen in the deaf community is there are deaf people who have fallen through the cracks,” Sharon said.

Now, she said, they are close to changing that. There is a formal program, the Bridges Navigator program, to help people in the deaf community with jobs and services. Sharon works with the program as a deaf services specialist. The new center, called the Denali Deaf Community Center, will give the program a home, she said.

Lynn Van Vactor, a board member for the new center and the former director of Alyeska Vocational Services, told me she first decided to become involved with the project after a meeting at a coffee shop where members of the deaf community were gathering to talk about the need for a center. She anticipated four or five people, but far more showed. They sat in a vast circle.

“They are all talking and sharing their stories about how difficult it is for them at work, or their living situation, or getting counseling,” she said.

There were deaf among the homeless who could not get housing because they could not communicate. There were police arrests where the people being arrested appeared to be resisting officers, but in fact just could not hear.

“For me, (learning about the need in the deaf community) has been an awakening,” Vactor said.

The center will fund its operation with a number of small business ventures, she said. It may offer some space for rent in the basement. There will be a coffee shop (the building used to house Indigo Tea Lounge), and they are looking at building a commercial kitchen that would be available for rent as well as job training. They have asked the Legislature for just over $2 million to do the needed upgrades on the building. If they get it, they plan to open by 2015. If they don’t, they will look aggressively for other funding, Vactor said.

When I went to visit the center building, all the Mirandas showed me around. It’s just an empty space right now, the walls covered with sticky notes full of ideas. John and Sharon and their children are hopeful it won’t be that way for long.

• Julia O’Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.

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