As The Community Church youth group begins Wednesday night worship, among the throng of kids is a young boy with intelligent eyes and quick hands. He taps the shoulder of Decatur senior Lindsey Provan and greets her. She does the same, neither one saying a word.
As the music dies down and the youth return to their seats facing the stage, senior Courtney Cantu takes a chair facing the opposite way in front of the boy, Zachary Kao, while Provan takes the one next to him. The three are already engaged in a seemingly amusing conversation, giggling and enjoying each other’s company. It isn’t until a speaker takes the stage that they become serious. Cantu still isn’t in a position to see the stage, but she is in a position to hear what is being said.
She begins to relay what she hears to Zach through her hands.
Zach uses sign language to communicate with his family and peers. After he and his family began attending The Community Church of Decatur in 2006, the youth group and members of the congregation decided to learn to sign, bridging the communication gap.
“At first I did the signing and then after about a year-and-a-half I had people start asking if I could teach sign language,” Zach’s mom, Jeri Kay Kao said. “It was mostly adults, but then as they got better, I handed the reins over, and then more youth wanted to learn.”
Cantu and Provan took the classes their church offered and further committed themselves to translating for Zach.
“I honestly just tried it out and automatically loved it; I kept going, and Zach was the reason,” Provan said.
As she converses with Zach throughout the services, Cantu finds that her favorite part about translating for him is finding that special bond and connection.
“I like getting to know him and his family better and seeing the excitement when everything clicks and he understands it,” she said.
Watching both girls sign with Zach, Jeri Kay enjoys knowing that her son is no longer hindered from communicating with kids his age.
“The best part about Courtney and Lindsey doing this is that they are his peers, not just his mom signing for him,” she said. He’s always had to be dependent on us and for him, to communicate and talk and have fun with kids his age, it’s been an amazing thing to watch. It’s helping him learn to interact with other teenagers. For a while, adults were the only ones who could sign to him and now kids his age can talk to him. That’s neat to be able to watch that.”
Youth pastors Chris Wann and Michael Hinson know that it was the girls’ selflessness that drove them into a serving attitude.
“They know that there is no personal gain in this except the joy of serving the Lord by serving Zachary and his family,” Wann said. “They were excited from the beginning to jump in and study and prepare to talk with him through sign language.”
Wann sees their dedication as a sign of love and admires the character in their actions.
“I’ve watched them both grow tremendously through doing this,” he said. “They don’t see this as an ‘opportunity’ per se. They see this as a part of their lives, something they want to do to help Zachary and others from now on.”
Seeing others in the church with disabilities, Jeri Kay appreciates that they are treated respectfully and equally.
“It’s so amazing to watch teenagers volunteering and taking the time to learn how to interact with these kids,” Jeri Kay said. “There are several special needs children in the church, and they are treated like everybody else.”
For Cantu and Provan, learning to sign has impacted their career choices as they prepare to graduate this year.
“It’s changed my life,” Provan said. “Ever since I learned to sign, I developed a passion for Zach and now I want to be a special education teacher. They look for people who know sign language.”
“I want to go into nursing,” Cantu said. “There are people who sign for the elderly, and I think it would be cool to incorporate that into what I want to do.”
Both youth pastors see everyone in the youth group displaying their love for Zach, not only through sign language, but also through actions as well.
“It is such a privilege for Michael and I to see our youth and adults serve and love on Zachary and so many other special needs kids and their families,” Wann said. “It will, no doubt, change all of our lives. We consider everyone here to be family, literally. And so we cry together and we celebrate together. We stick it out together and don’t give up. We walk through everything together just as a family is called to do.”