Samantha Savitz is just like many other toddlers—she’s social, bubbly, and she loves a good joke. But little Sam wasn’t always able to communicate with her neighbors in the Newton, Massachusetts neighborhood of Auburndale.
That’s because two-year-old Sam is deaf.
“Sometimes people feel awkward around someone who doesn’t speak the same language,” says Glenda Savitz, Sam’s mom. “They may ignore that person to avoid an uncomfortable interaction.”
But Auburndale residents are taking a more neighborly approach. Each week, 20 of them meet at an in-home American Sign Language class. Now, they are able to sign things like, “Hello, Sam!” and, “Do you want a cookie?” when they see her. While it may seem like a big effort for such small talk, these neighbors know that community is built on these friendly interactions—and they weren’t about to leave their newest little neighbor out of their neighborhood love.
A Neighborly Idea
Savitz and her husband, Raphael, moved to Auburndale in the summer of 2016 when she was pregnant with Sam. They noticed right away that the neighborhood along the Charles River was special.
“Our next-door neighbors introduced themselves as the newbies, as they had ‘only’ lived there for 17 years,” Savitz recalls. “This was an area where people had roots.”
Neighbors came by in a kayak to welcome them. Others brought cookies. There were invitations to parties and book clubs. And there was a great deal of excitement for the new baby on the way.
But as Sam grew, neighbors realized their inability to communicate with her prevented them from extending to her their usual amount of neighborliness.
“Here was a cute little girl we would see walking with her mom or dad, but we were not able to talk to her directly, or understand what she was thinking or wanted to say to us,” says neighbor Jill McNeil.
So last fall, McNeil and three other neighbors signed up for an ASL class at a local school. They loved the class so much that they wanted their neighbors to have the same experience. So they brought the class—and their teacher—to their neighborhood.
The Language of Community
Twenty neighbors—ranging from a high school student to retirees—recently completed the level-one ASL class. So far they’ve learned about 200 signs, plus the letters of the alphabet.
For the group’s final project, they each made a video of themselves signing a children’s book. Then they compiled the videos and presented them as a gift to Sam—who is loving this early lesson in neighborliness.
“Sam’s hands are little, but her heart is huge. She gets really excited when she meets someone who is signing to her,” says McNeil. “She knows that I care about her and that I am her friend.”
This month, the group will begin a level-two class.
“My husband and I feel overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciate the great effort of this community,” says Glenda. “Our lives will be forever changed to feel support 360 degrees around us.”
And even though it hardly seems possible that such a wonderful story could get even better, it does. McNeil says learning ASL hasn’t just brought she and her community closer to Sam, but to each other. Apparently, neighbors who work together to give one resident a better place to live get a little something for themselves, too: a better neighborhood for everyone who lives there.
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