Evening coffee club unites deaf community in Sequim

Diane Dickson visits Sequim from Tacoma once a year for the Lavender Festival.

Six years ago, Dickson met a woman who, much like herself, is deaf. Out of curiosity, Dickson asked the woman if there are very many deaf people living in Sequim. "No," the woman signed to her. "I think I'm the only one."

Through a series of events, Dickson met Bob and Callie Stanek, a deaf couple who moved to Sequim from Arizona. They too seemed to think they were the only deaf people living in Sequim.

Then Dickson met Gerilee Gustason, a sign language instructor employed by Peninsula College. Gustason moved to Sequim from California eight years ago with her daughter. Like the Staneks, the two women thought they were the only deaf people in town.

Dickson knew there had to be other deaf people living in Sequim. And she wanted to help connect them.

"I was thinking in my heart, I don't like to see deaf people isolated in a small town," Dickson said. "So, I started praying that the Lord would help me bring these people together."

With Gustason's help, Dickson formed the Deaf Coffee House, a club that meets the first Monday of each month for coffee and conversation at The Buzz, 128 N. Sequim Ave. The next meeting is Jan. 5.

Fourteen people attended the first meeting. Twenty-four came to the second meeting. Attendance is increasing each month, proving that dozens of deaf and hearing-impaired people live in Sequim and its surrounding areas. Deaf, hearing, speaking, nonspeaking and people of all levels of fluency in sign language are welcome to join.

"It's good for hearing people to learn sign language," Gustason encouraged. "What if you were to become blind and deaf and didn't already know sign language?" she mused. "You need to be prepared because you don't know what might happen."

Gustason knows firsthand about dealing with the "unexpected." Orphaned as a young child, she grew up in foster care in an area with no "special" school for deaf people. At her foster parents' encouragement, she attended public school.

"I was very isolated because not very many hearing people knew sign language," Gustason remembered. "But I don't feel isolated anymore and I think the deaf need to try and meet hearing people so they can learn to understand the deaf community."

Mostly, the club provides an opportunity for deaf people to meet and converse with other deaf people.

"Everybody has their own story about how they became deaf or how they grew up deaf," said Sequim resident Michelle Mangiantini, 45, who lost her hearing seven years ago.

Because she grew up hearing, she can speak clearly and read lips, almost to the point that people don't know she's deaf, Mangiantini said. "But I didn't know how to sign or communicate as a deaf person (after I lost my hearing)."

To communicate with her, Mangiantini's husband had to learn sign language. The couple attends the coffee together, practicing signs, learning new signs and making friends.

Now that the club is up and running, Dickson is stepping back and letting others take the lead. She plans to relocate to Sequim after she retires. Next year, she's signing up as a volunteer at the Lavender Festival to meet and bring together more deaf people in Sequim.

Box: Register to learn sign language

Gerilee Gustason teaches introductory sign language classes through Peninsula College from 6-8 p.m. Thursdays at the Old Dungeness Schoolhouse. For more information or to register, call 417-6255.

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