Texas teen learns Kenyan Sign Language to teach, provide hope, ‘make them feel loved’

Eighteen-year-old Shawn Aaron McAnalley Jr. likes computers — he built one at age 12.

The Texas teen also wants to solve commuter traffic headaches with math and use chemistry to make french fries healthier.

McAnalley, a senior at Harmony Science Academy in Euless, has been learning Kenyan Sign Language to help deaf children and teens in Africa. He wants them to become tomorrow’s highly skilled professional — a leader who can also advocate for the deaf.

“We want these children to become the leaders of Kenya,” he said. “We are not just trying to get them out of Kenya because they are a part of Kenya and we want them to help make Kenya better.”

Kenyan Sign Language, which is different from American Sign Language, is the main form of communication for deaf youngsters trying to rise from discrimination in their homeland.

Last summer, mission work took McAnalley to Rongo, Kenya, to help deaf orphans. He spent about a month at Sam’s Place, a Christian-based educational program for deaf children who have been abandoned and marginalized.

“The deaf are believed by many to be cursed,” said Dawn Deitmen, a North Texas technology expert who volunteers and advocates for Sam’s Place. “Many times they are abandoned.”

While McAnalley helped improve the computer network at the school, he also learned the Kenyan Sign Language to communicate with the boys and girls who lived and studied at Sam’s Place.

“We all have to make sure that these kids are loved and you can’t love someone who you can’t really talk to,” he said of learning Kenyan Sign Language.

A personal call to serve others inspired McAnalley to learn to communicate with a vulnerable community, but McAnalley’s teachers, family and friends say it isn’t surprising the youth would take on a new challenge.

“He learns everything that he can lay his hands on,” said Shireesh Apte, McAnalley’s chemistry teacher. “That’s the way he is. ... I think you will see him on the Noble Peace Prize stage in 15 years.”

Sam’s Place

Sam’s Place is a Christian-based residential school for deaf children started by South 11th & Willis Church of Christ in Abilene. The project started with an $80,000 gift for “whoever in the world has zero hope,” Dietmen said.

The donation, which helped establish an endowment fund for the project, was made by educator Sam McReynolds when he died. In a November 2007 church newsletter, McReynolds was described as “a teacher committed to Christian service.”

The school is named in his memory.

“Discarded by a society that views deaf children as worthless, deaf children are thrown on the garbage dumps or left tied up in the forest for wild animals,” the newsletter states. “Sam’s Place will change that forever.”

Today, there are 44 students between the ages of 4 and 19 currently being served by the program, Deitmen said. Volunteers from Deitmen’s congregation, CrossPoint Church of Christ in Grand Prairie, support Sam’s Place.

Deitmen said they want to lift the students, who arrive with zero language and trauma, from the margins.

“Some of them don’t have a name,” she said, explaining that some of the students are dropped off by their villages without being taught sign language. They also learn to read and write in English.

Deitmen said they want students to be around caring people so they can learn to trust and emerge from living in a survival mode.

The goal is to train future workers with high-tech skills so they transcend stereotypes about the deaf while standing out to potential employers. The students learn in “smart classrooms” and computer labs. Teachers have laptops.

The teaching approach is comprehensive as students get new books and can gain access to carpentry and sewing lessons.

Deitmen, who attends CrossPoint Church of Christ in Grand Prairie with McAnalley, said the Texas teen helped raise the bar on the school’s technology, including running more security in the system.

“Aaron just took us to a new level,” Deitmen said. “His technology knowledge is beyond an adult who has been in the career for a while.”

Deitmen said McAnalley’s time at Sam’s Place exposed the students to a smart young person who enjoys new personal challenges. He became a role model.

“He took the time to learn the language,” she said. “He took the time to learn with the kids. He took the time to make them want to be smart. ... He brought them the desire to learn which is just amazing.”

A new family

McAnalley lived at Sam’s Place for one month and interacted with the students like family.

He learned all of the students’ names in the Kenyan Sign Language (all of the students also go by English names). He had to rely on signs to communicate.

“The most important thing is to be able to interact with these kids and get to know them and have them get to know you,” McAnalley said.

He said he made friends and wants to keep practicing sign language. One of his friends is Killion Nyabera, 18, a student from Sam’s Place who has been in Texas getting medical treatment.

“I’m happy Aaron is learning Kenyan Sign Language,” Nyabera told the Star-Telegram in an email. “He is my great friend.”

Crystal McAnalley said her son, who studied Spanish and Korean, likes to explore languages so picking up Kenyan Sign Language seemed natural for him.

“He loves languages,” Crystal McAnalley said. “He was learning multiple different languages. ...When he was a little kid he was decoding stuff. He has always loved learning.”

Crystal McAnalley said her son is also easily drawn to people.

“He loves people,” she said. “He loves kids. He has always gotten along with kids.”

McAnalley said he found reward in his mission work. He learned that although people come from different cultures and backgrounds, they are very similar.

“They are still kids who I can laugh with and talk to and enjoy,” he said. “We are all people no matter how different we are.”

McAnalley stays in contact with Sam’s Place via email with employees at the school because he helps fix computer issues.

McAnalley said he lived, talked and laughed with the children of Sam’s Place and hopes to return to Kenya someday.

“My goal, when I went there, is to help these kids and part of the way to do that is ... building this network and helping them with computer stuff,” McAnalley said. “But definitely the most important thing, is to make them feel loved.”

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.