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Volunteers hear a silent call for help

They went as temps to work at a Koreatown rehab center for deaf people. When funding dwindled, they stay on without pay.

November 06, 2009|Bob Pool

None of them know sign language.

But the value of a Koreatown rehabilitation center for the deaf came through loud and clear to the three short-term "temps" when they were sent there by their agency to do clerical office work. Now they are fighting to save the center.

Those enrolled in daily classes at the Center for Communicative Development have spent their lives in silent illiteracy and isolation. Most are from countries that do not provide a formal education to those who cannot hear -- and who have never spoken.

The center was created nearly 45 years ago by Virginia McKinney, whose life was turned upside down when she suddenly lost her hearing from an allergic reaction to a flu vaccine. Now 84, she still directs the nonprofit school.

A "case service" contract with the state's Department of Rehabilitation normally provides about half of the center's approximately $550,000 yearly budget. Grants and donations have made up the rest.

Donations have dried up in the recession, however. And the state's financial crisis has hammered the Wilshire Boulevard school as Sacramento officials delayed payments to vendors, including McKinney.

Salaries for the center's four instructors and two aides who teach American Sign Language and literacy skills and for other employees were cut in half. In late summer, several staff members quit.

That's when temporary workers Margie Rosales, Juan Alvarado, Mildred Guerra and Leslie Pogue were sent to fill in.

At first it seemed like it might be another brief tour of duty in one more faceless, anonymous office for the temps. For a time, they were the ones who felt isolated.

They couldn't communicate with the center's students. Initially, they struggled to make themselves understood by the hearing-impaired members of the teaching staff who rely on lip reading. And then there was the boss.

McKinney is something of a legend in deaf rehabilitation circles. Still crusty and hard-charging, she has been slowed by recent strokes that have compounded a decades-long struggle with a neuromuscular disorder, myasthenia gravis.

"She's old and she's a little hard to work for," Rosales said. "You have to be patient. You find she is really nice. You see that what she is doing for people is brilliant."

And that's why three of the temps were still on the job this week, working without pay, after their agency canceled its contract with the center because of the financial crunch.

"We can't turn our back on these students," said Alvarado, who acknowledged that the job "started out just as another assignment for me. I'd never been around the disabled."

Guerra said their temporary agency had extended the center's credit well beyond what is normal before pulling out. McKinney was two months behind on her payments to the agency, she said.

"What we're doing goes against our temp company's rules. It could jeopardize our jobs," said Guerra, who asked that the agency not be named. "We're still here."

The three say Pogue, who lives in the Antelope Valley, had to quit this week because of the cost of gasoline for her commute.

Students and instructors are relieved that the temporary workers -- who handle the center's bookkeeping and other administrative chores -- are hanging in there.

English teacher Mario Huerta said his last full check, for August, arrived in September. Since then, he's received half his usual salary.

"It's a struggle financially," Huerta said, using sign language translated by colleague Bob Hiltermann. "But I'm willing to give up a check to keep this school open."

Nina Bachini, who works as an assistant to McKinney, said she has not been paid anything for three weeks. "I'll scrape by. Virginia is having a hard time and I don't want to leave her alone," Bachini said. "We believe in her goals and what she wants to happen to her students. She believes that they can have normal lives."

McKinney's school traces its roots to 1957. That's when she was given three shots of a new vaccine designed to fight that year's outbreak of Asian flu. An allergic reaction to it damaged a cranial nerve leading to her ears that resulted in the loss of most of her hearing.

She had to leave her job as a Los Angeles County Superior Court reporter. Frustrated at the difficulty she was experiencing learning lip reading, she produced a series of 8-millimeter movies that she could use to practice following conversations.

Later, McKinney used a drug company settlement to finance production of 16-millimeter practice films to help other deaf people learn lip reading. Returning to college to earn degrees in speech therapy and educational administration, she began teaching the deaf in her home.

As she moved into communication by sign language, McKinney eventually opened her center. In 1997, she wrote an illustrated sign language guide, "The Picture Plus Dictionary," which has become a staple for those learning American Sign Language.

Temp worker Alvarado is helping her update that book. "We can put it out on a CD so we can send it to more people," he said.

"The more people who buy it, the more extra income that will come in for the school," he said.

Rosales said Sacramento leaders have approved the resumption of state payments, suggesting that the center's funding problems could begin easing. She said that before having her strokes, McKinney wrote grant applications which brought in additional financial support.

"I tried writing a grant, but I don't know how to ask people for money," Rosales said.

But she says that's a language skill that she's willing to learn.

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

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