Dungiven based group, Hands That Week, last week scooped the National Lottery’s Best Voluntary/Charity Project award, beating off competition from groups across the UK. Journal county reporter SHEENA JACKSON spoke with founder Dorothy Hegarty to find out how the charity started, how it has helped the deaf community and how Hands That Talk has changed her life.
When ‘Hands That Talk’ founder Dorothy Hegarty taught in the former St. Brecan’s school in Derry, she would often see Dungiven girl, Siobhan McKeever.
Siobhan attended the school’s partially hearing unit and the two would exchange a smile and a wave, an expression on their faces, but that was it.
“I’d loved to have been able to communicate with her and you could see she wanted to as well - you could see it in her eyes - but we couldn’t,” says Dorothy.
The time passed and Dorothy retired, but Siobhan was always at the back of her mind.
“I decided to learn sign language and, I tell you, I had a hard job trying to find a class locally,” she says.
As the classes progressed, Dorothy decided she wanted to get sign language classes up and running in Dungiven. She approached Siobhan and asked her what she thought about plans for a club for the deaf community.
“Siobhan shrugged her shoulders, I remember, but I can tell you now, it’ a different story today!”
With no base at the time in Dungiven, Dorothy was kindly helped out by the then Dungiven Community Resource Centre.
“They were very good. They gave me a corner in the office and a phone and allowed me to take calls. I was so grateful.”
When she advertised for the sign language classes Dorothy thought she would get a dozen or so applicants, but she was way off the mark. She got 57.
It was suggested the group be constituted and perhaps they could secure some funding. Never one to wait around, Dorothy did just that and, along with co-founder, Martina Bradley, Hands That Talk was born. The reason for choosing the name was simple.
Holding up both hands in front of her, Dorothy said: “That’s what these are, hands that talk.”
At the time, Dorothy admits she was completely unaware and naive about what lay ahead.
“I knew nothing about the deaf community but we were very excited about it. I love a challenge and, if I decide to do something, it’s all or nothing. That’s just how I am.”
The early days of Hands That Talk were full of ups and downs, a rollercoaster as Dorothy describes them.
“The stories the deaf community have to tell need to be listened to. They are heartbreaking, beautiful and some are very sad,” she says. “One of the biggest things we have to do is make the hearing community more aware. Sometimes all it takes is a smile and a wave, a communication to say, ‘how are you?’ So many people are unaware and the onus is on the hearing community because deaf people can never learn our language.”
Hands That Talk is full of life changing stories about people who were drawn from a life of isolation into a world where they no longer feel alone, says Dorothy.
People like Siobhan McKeever, says Dorothy, who is a huge part of Hands That Talk and sits on a number of committees representing the views of the deaf community.
“Hands That Talk has made a difference,” says Dorothy, “a massive difference.”
Dorothy is quick to brush off personal praise and points out she is just a small part of Hands That Talk. When she received an MBE for services to the deaf community, she says she accepted it on behalf of the deaf community and the people who work to make their lives better. Without the unbelievable generosity of the Dungiven community and parish and Limavady Borough Council she is adamant the group wouldn’t be where it is today. She credits the countless volunteers, the staff and, most importantly, the deaf community for making Hands That Talk such a success.
“I’m not from Dungiven originally, but from The Rock outside Cookstown but I am very proud to live in Dungiven. Hands That Talk really needed the support of the community, and there is no doubt they have been very supportive to us.”
Throughout the years Hands That Talk has delivered sign languages classes and services up and down the country. The team, which has four staff from the deaf community and three staff from the hearing community, helps members across the North West with a multitude of issues affecting their day to day lives.
“I’m so busy with it all and you just keep going with it and things get bigger and bigger and, on one or two occasions, you stop and look at what’s happened since the beginning and then you realise what we’ve done,”” she says, “but it’s not me and I always say this; it’s the team at Hands That Talk and the deaf community that have made it possible.””
While she has retired, Dorothy can’t see the day she will not be involved in Hands That Talk.
“The deaf community has enriched my life. The experiences I have had and the realization they must be treated like everyone else. They have taught me sign language and to be more patient, humble and grateful for what I have an life.””
Scooping the National Lottery Best Voluntary/Charity Project award, last weekend was the “icing on the cake”.
“Collecting that award, with chairman James Mc Kiernan, on behalf of the team and the volunteers and the deaf community was incredible and very emotional,” she says.
The group has big plans for a new centre in Dungiven designed to integrate the deaf and hearing communities and Dorothy has found herself on the board of a new vibrant organization called Benbradagh Community Support.
“I have such great praise for the Dungiven community and how they have helped Hands That Talk and I am honoured to be in the position I am in to work with the deaf community and I will never not be involved.””
See this week’s Sunday’s Journal for more on Hands That Talk