Hearing impaired Gilchrist resident expands her world teaching ASL

15 May 2024

Eileen Levie may be hearing-impaired, but thanks to her love of teaching American Sign Language, she’s taking steps to overcome her social isolation one student at a time.

Eileen, a resident at Silvera’s Gilchrist Commons community in Pineridge, discovered her love of teaching in her senior years. Although she’s been deaf since 1958 after contracting meningitis as an infant, she had never taught sign language before last year. Now she’s helping fellow residents of Gilchrist learn ASL so they can better communicate with her.

“It can be a very lonely place when I have no one to talk to,” Eileen says. “Now I am teaching ASL to help me and all the others that cannot hear or speak to have more people to talk to.”

About 18 months ago, a few residents asked Haley Emary, the Life, Learning and Leisure Facilitator at Gilchrist, if she could help them learn ASL so they could communicate with Eileen.

“I taught them a bit of ASL along with YouTube early last year,” Haley says. “After a few months, Eileen started to take over the teaching.”

Eileen now teaches her peers at Gilchrist on an individual basis. “There’s a group that meets up and she helps each of them,” says Haley. “One resident has really embraced ASL. They’re all learning at different paces.”

Connecting with the broader community

Last fall, Megan Solamillo, a social worker with the City of Calgary, partnered with Silvera to run a community outreach program on Thursday mornings at Gilchrist. There, she met Eileen.

“Eileen was teaching her neighbours how to sign, and said she was interested in teaching others in the community. I asked if she would like to expand the group and run it at Village Square Leisure Center,” says Megan, who supports the neighbourhood of Pineridge, connecting residents through community outreach programming.

Megan got in touch with Deaf & Hear Alberta to set up a four-week ASL for Beginners workshop. Megan now plans, advertises and organizes each session and provides materials and other resources for Eileen to teach her classes. (See a brief video of Megan and Eileen and their ASL class.)

Eileen has taught ASL to between eight to 12 individuals at two six-week sessions at the Village Square Library. The third cohort begins in May, and new participants are welcome to join. A few of Eileen’s Silvera friends have joined her at Village Square to continue advancing their learning.

“The community has been very engaged in learning ASL,” says Megan. “One community leader who teaches children’s music is now learning and incorporating ASL into her sessions with the kids. Another community leader runs a safety initiative and is using ASL as a tool to be more inclusive in the community.

“We have also had many newcomers to Canada from the deaf community who are learning both English and ASL at the same time. This group is helping to support a sense of belonging and increase connectivity in the community.”

Eileen is thrilled and proud to be helping others learn to sign.

“I want more people to learn ASL so they are able to talk with me and any deaf friends or family members in their lives,” she says. “It not only helps me to have more people to talk to, but it also improves the lives of those who learn ASL. My hope is to keep teaching others as long as I can.”