Debbie Curry feels how many and what kind of utensils she has as she wraps napkins during her volunteer session at the Carl Gipson Senior Center on May 16. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Debbie Curry feels how many and what kind of utensils she has as she wraps napkins during her volunteer session at the Carl Gipson Senior Center on May 16. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Blind and deaf — and independent, thanks to a local agency

Debbie Curry works at the Carl Gipson Senior Center, with help from Sherwood Community Services.

By Kaitlyn Johnson / Special to The Herald

EVERETT — Debbie Curry and Bria Rainey stand together at a wide, industrial countertop in Everett’s Carl Gipson Senior Center.

Curry, who is deaf and blind, delicately folds silverware into paper napkins. Rainey is silent as Curry relentlessly chips away at the bin of unrolled silverware, occasionally stopping to push aside a bent spoon or a creased napkin.

Rainey is Curry’s employment specialist through Sherwood Community Services, an organization that provides early learning and employment assistance to people with disabilities.

The vocational program matches participants with volunteer and paid positions in the community. Last year, Sherwood served nearly 170 adults, and paired them with more than 80 businesses and volunteer sites. Employment specialists, like Rainey, help people apply for jobs, prepare for interviews and provide training.

Every so often, a staff member from the senior center will ask to speak with Curry. Rainey directs Curry’s hands away from her work and toward the staff member’s face. This is one way she communicates.

The practice of touching someone’s mouth to communicate is called Tadoma. The deaf and blind person places their thumb on the speaker’s lips and fingers on their throat. That way they can simultaneously read the speaker’s lips and feel vibrations from their voice to understand what they are saying.

Along with Tadoma, Rainey uses tactile American Sign Language to speak to Curry. The helper forms signs into Curry’s other hand to interpret by feel. Curry responds with a mixture of sign language and verbal communication.

Rainey and Curry have been working together for almost a year. Curry has been in Sherwood’s programs for decades.

“It’s an amazing thing to be a part of,” said Eric Wollan, program coordinator at the senior center.

Curry tucks and rolls a napkin at the Carl Gipson Senior Center on May 16. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Curry tucks and rolls a napkin at the Carl Gipson Senior Center on May 16. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Curry has been volunteering at the senior center since February. She said through Rainey that her favorite part of working there is folding towels.

“She is extremely task-oriented and focused,” Rainey said.

Curry worked for the state Department of Services for the Blind for 11 years before coming to Sherwood. Her first position at Sherwood was sorting electrical parts and cleaning TV remotes.

After her time sorting, Curry started to express a different interest.

“She strongly related to us that she loved folding things,” said Lance Morehouse, Sherwood’s CEO. “Because of that, Sherwood helped find her the positions at the senior center and other retirement homes.”

While Curry hasn’t said it herself, Rainey and others have inferred the reason she likes to fold.

“It’s likely that she recognizes folding as a vocation that she can perform independently. She’s an extremely independent woman, so anything that she can do independently is important to her,” Rainey said.

Curry is able to do most of her volunteering without any help and has reduced her napkin rolling time to one roll per minute. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Curry is able to do most of her volunteering without any help and has reduced her napkin rolling time to one roll per minute. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Morehouse described Curry as fiercely self-sufficient. He once visited Curry’s home and was impressed by what he saw. Curry had memorized the location of all the furniture and navigated with ease to the kitchen, where she found a mug, creamer and coffee grounds. She then used her Keurig to make a cup of coffee.

“I still get confused with my Keurig,” Morehouse said. “But she was able to go through all the steps herself and make her cup of coffee.”

Curry’s determination and independence fit right in with Sherwood’s mission.

The organization was founded by Hazel Venables in 1957, out of frustration at the lack of services available for her child, who had a cognitive disability, and others with disabilities.

Venables had spent years working as a nurse, and through that job realized she was not alone in her struggles. This motivated her to create something that was rare at the time: a place where children with cognitive disabilities could learn. Venables’ mission stayed the same until 1972, when special education programs became mandated in public schools.

Today, Sherwood serves “as the bookends of the public school system,” Morehouse said. It provides vocational services for adults with disabilities ages 20 and older. It also has programs for babies with disabilities.

Sherwood’s lasting contributions were recognized on May 22 by the Snohomish County Council, which passed a resolution acknowledging its 62 years working to improve the lives of people with disabilities. The program, headquartered in Lake Stevens, works with people in Snohomish, Skagit and Island counties.

Kaitlyn Johnson is a ninth-grader at Cavelero Mid High School in Lake Stevens.

Learn more

For more information about Sherwood Community Services, call 425-334-4071 or visit www.sherwoodcs.org.

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