When a Newton family welcomed a baby who is deaf, 20 neighbors learned sign language
NEWTON — Something small and profound is happening here along the banks of the Charles River. It’s a love story.
It’s a story of a little girl who’s deaf.
It’s a story of neighbors who’ve raised their own children and are now embracing a beautiful 2-year-old named Samantha.
It’s a story of 20 neighbors who sit in silence to learn a new language so their littlest neighbor will know what their kids have always known: Community. Friendship. Inclusion.
“This child will always be a child of this neighborhood,’’ said Terry Nowak, who grew up and raised three children here.
“We will all be participants in helping her as she grows. We do that with each other’s children. The community is already in place. This is just a new way to express it.’’
To understand what’s taking place on Islington Road these days, you have to follow the path Samantha’s parents took to get here.
Glenda and Raphael Savitz met at a social gathering in 2011 a week after Glenda, who grew up in Southern California and went to optometrist school there, moved to Boston. Raphael is a business consultant, a graduate of Yeshiva University.
They were married in the fall of 2013. They moved to Auburndale in the summer of 2016. Three months later, Samantha was born. Within a week, newborn screening tests showed that their infant daughter was deaf.
“She was the first deaf person my husband and I had known,” Glenda Savitz, 33, told me the other morning as Sam sat in her lap.
“So it’s a surprise. Unexpected. But I think I’m someone who’s like: OK. What do we do? She’s a week old. We’re going to be learning sign language. There was no question that was going to be important to her development and her growth.’’
Their first hint of what would come next from their neighbors was in the way they were welcomed when they first moved to the neighborhood. There were plates of cookies. There were greetings from neighbors in kayaks, bearing the promises of friendship. This is a place where elderly neighbors’ driveways are shoveled without prompting. If you’re sick, expect a casserole.
And now this: The new baby on the street was deaf.
“We all have had children of our own and we were excited that this new baby was coming,’’ said Jill McNeil, who grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and wanted that cozy neighborhood feeling for the two kids she and her husband raised here. “We were excited that a new baby was coming. There can be nothing better. Then there was this additional challenge.
“You see Sam and it’s frustrating not to be able to say, ‘Oh, I love your pretty pink pants.’ We wanted to take that away. We didn’t want them to have that extra struggle if there was anything we could damn well do about it.’’
As it turns out, there was.
That’s how American Sign Language has become the second tongue now spoken on one end of Islington Road. Why? Because that’s Samantha Savitz’s language. And there was no way her neighbors were going to let her practice it alone.
“People everywhere are looking to have a community,’’ said Lucia Marshall, a Memphis native who has degrees from Harvard and Yale and settled here 20 years ago. “Having something positive to rally around is a great thing. Sam is creating a reason for us to get together.
“She’s such a cute girl. Everybody’s desperate to want to communicate with her. People are working hard so they’ll have something to say. She’s like a sponge. We’re giving it a yeoman’s try.’’
If you think what these neighbors are doing is unusual – poignant and inspiring even – you’re right.
Sarah Honigfeld, Sam’s teacher and mentor at The Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham, has been a part of the little girl’s learning life since she was 3 months old. She’s watched her grow into the little girl who has become a model for her little peers.
“It’s an amazing situation that every deaf child should have,’’ Honigfeld told me the other day through an interpreter. “I’m thinking about other children who are sent two or four hours away to attend a deaf school because that’s where their community is. She should not be the exception. This should be the standard for a deaf child. It’s not unfortunately.’’
That’s what makes what’s happening in Lucia Marshall’s living room so powerful. These neighbors didn’t ask Sam’s parents’ permission. They hired an instructor. And got started.
As winter’s grip tightened around New England the other night, Rhys McGovern, a hard-of-hearing speech language pathologist, went to work before a class of 18 in Lucia Marshall’s living room.
He never spoke a word. And his students never missed a chance to learn.
There were murmurs, whispers, and muffled laughter — the kind that often accompanies efforts to stretch and tackle something new. There were nods of acknowledgment and mutual appreciation.
Standing before a projector and small screen, the kind that home movies have danced across for 50 years, McGovern went to work.
In this serious silence, nomenclature was reviewed. New vocabulary verbs were introduced: Go. Like. Want. Eat. Play. Have. Make.
The neighbor-students were asked to take turns asking questions about families. Who do you live with? (In sign language that becomes: You live with who?) Where does your family live? (In sign language: Your family live where?)
With 15 minutes remaining in class, Sam arrives in the arms of her father, and is greeted by welcoming signs from neighbors who want to learn her world.
“One of the most emotional experiences having her is that I really learned about how much support and how much love there is here,’’ Glenda Savitz told me. “How much I’ve learned about other people.
“If someone brought over a present, I’d be so grateful. But now people are putting in so much time and energy to learn a foreign language because they’re dying to talk to my little girl. I don’t have words for that.’’
Raphael Savitz nodded as his wife spoke.
“I want her to be happy,’’ he said of his child. “I want her to have the life that she wants. I think what we’re trying to provide is the right background to get there.’’
And that starts at home.
“It’s a special neighborhood,’’ he said. “It’s just a really welcoming place.’’
That neighborly warm embrace is now there every time a neighbor leans down and signs with Sam. Every chance encounter of inclusion in the local grocery store. Every time Sam points to her living room chairs where her neighbors meet and makes the sign for “friend.’’
Friends like 19-year-old Henry Marshall, a Harvard freshman, who, like Sam, moved as an infant to this neighborhood he still calls home.
Henry stands 6-foot-1. And like Sam’s parents, he knows what a special place this is.
Sam’s family has erected a kid’s basketball hoop next to Henry’s regulation-sized basket.
“Whenever I’m out there shooting to blow off steam, Sam is mimicking my movements,’’ Henry said. “It’s a fun way to kind of bond. She’s making the signs for ‘friend’ and the sign for ‘play.’
“We look after each other. She’s the most upbeat little girl I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve never seen her throw a tantrum or be upset. She always wants to play. She’s just a ball of energy.’’
Just another neighborhood kid.
The little girl who’s found real family in all those people next door.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.