How one bill can permanently fund the Tennessee Deaf Mentor & Parent Advisor program

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Aside from falling a Jenga tower or rolling dice at the Chutes & Ladders game, all is quiet in a room at Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

But it’s never been louder for Amy Ferrell and her kids either.

“Charlee was the first deaf person I ever met,” she said.

Ferrell was shocked to find out her daughter Charlee was deaf. Charlee’s older brother Logan is not.

“I want Charlee to have as many choices in life as my hearing son,” said Amy Ferrell.

Up until 2019, that equity was hard to come by, but then the Deaf Mentor & Parent Advisor Program took off.

“A lot of these parents who have never dated a deaf person don’t know how to communicate with their child,” said Sen. Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville).

Massey, along with Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis), sponsored the original legislation to help create the program in 2019.

“It was a lifeline for us,” said Amy Ferrell.

It pairs a deaf child with a deaf mentor and parent advisor to bridge this communication gap while providing guidance for children to follow. Once a week, the mentor and counselor spend time with the child and their family to help with education, communication and support.

“Without this mentoring program for the deaf, we found ourselves on an island trying to get our own support, which really, new to the disability world, isn’t something we wanted,” said Amy Ferrell.

Having a deaf family member opens up a whole new world of life. Parents must learn how to wake their child without an alarm clock, to alert them in an emergency, to ask for an interpreter, to go to the doctor with an interpreter – the list goes on.

“They learn language through you, they learn through you to be their own advocate,” said Amy Ferrell. “Without that program, there really isn’t anything in the state that’s federally funded that offers that kind of support and that kind of access.”

The program not only helps the child, but also the rest of the family. In fact, English isn’t even the primary language in the Ferrell household.

“What’s been so exciting is that our whole family has learned to sign,” said Amy Ferrell. “My husband, my hearing son who is six years old, our main language in the house is ASL (American Sign Language).”

There was just one problem with it — it’s a one-off funding, which means affected families have to go to the legislature every year and plead for the funding to continue.

But this year, Massey submitted SB0004 to potentially make that funding permanent.

“We’re hoping to get it done once and for all and have it in recurring funding because it’s really having a huge impact on these families,” she said.

If you had told Amy Ferrell two years ago that this program would change her life, she would not have believed you.

“I couldn’t picture it because I was knee deep in grief and emotion and I was just like, ‘What am I going to do for my child?'” she said. “When I look back now, it’s beautiful, it’s wonderful. I am confident that in our family environment we are all more connected than ever.”

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It’s an attitude of gratitude this Thanksgiving.