It’s a rare thing, in this day and age, to move into a new neighborhood and find yourself unabashedly welcomed by the local inhabitants. As far as Hollywood is concerned, this is exactly how all quaint, friendly suburban neighborhoods are, but the modern age has given birth to a new age of xenophobia.
Nevertheless, there are some places out there where the neighbors are as earnestly friendly and welcoming as they are in all those 1950s sitcoms. Take for instance the residents of the small Massachusetts neighborhood that lies at the center of our story…
Glenda and Raphael Savitz met in 2011. Though Glenda had grown up in southern California, she’d moved to Boston to get a fresh perspective on things. It was very nearly “love at first sight” and over the next two years, they cultivated a healthy, happy relationship. They married in 2013 and moved to Auburndale three years later.
The Savitzs move to Newton had found themselves welcomed into the neighborhood with truly open arms. It had been like something out of a sitcom. The happy residents had come over with plates of cookies, casseroles, and the like. In short, the neighborhood they’d moved to was the type of place where you’d be happy to raise a family.
Jill McNeil, one of the neighbors, is no stranger to friendly, close-knit neighborhoods. She grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and had delighted when she and her husband found Newton. Having already had two children of their own, Jill was thrilled to hear that a new baby was coming into the neighborhood. There was just one problem…
A Newborn Dilemma
Glenda was pregnant before the move and within three months, they gave birth to Samantha. Unfortunately, something was wrong. A week or so of tests revealed that little Samantha had been born completely deaf. The Savitzs were completely shocked and they knew that raising Samantha was going to take some serious work and commitment.
The neighborhood was still excited to welcome little Samantha into their midst, of course, but they were mindful of what a struggle the situation was for her parents. “You see Sam and it’s frustrating not to be able to say, ‘Oh, I love your pretty pink pants.’ We wanted to take that away. We didn’t want them to have that extra struggle if there was anything we could damn well do about it.’’ Jill explained to the Boston Globe.
What To Do?
Jill and the other neighbors wanted to do something to make things easier for the family. As Samantha was only a week old at the time, they took some time to make a decision. What they decided was that they were going to learn sign language as a group in order to help Samantha learn to communicate as she grew.
As remarkable and challenging an undertaking as this sounds, the neighborhood agreed to take on the burden of learning an entirely second language all for the benefit of their youngest member. Samantha Savitz would grow up learning to speak American Sign Language, so her friends and neighbors would learn to speak it right along with her.
The group of 18 residents had hired a sign language instructor at the start of winter, meaning they had plenty of time to learn while Samantha grew. And so the entire neighborhood, with the exception of Glenda and Raphael Savitz, gathered in Lucia Marshall’s living room. Lucia Marshall is a former Memphis native who has lived in the Newton neighborhood for over two decades.
A Positive Undertaking
Like Jill McNeil, Lucia believes in the power and significance of having a community, especially when children are involved. “People everywhere are looking to have a community. Having something positive to rally around is a great thing. Sam is creating a reason for us to get together,” she explained.
The group of neighbors had hired Rhys McGovern, a hard-of-hearing speech-language pathologist. Throughout his months of lessons, Rhys never spoke a word. Instead, he worked in silence, indicating all the myriad signs and symbols of the language. Working all the while to combat the relative newness the residents felt at having to speak without words. It was not an easy process.
Rhys also made use of a 50-year-old projector, working in serious silence as he reviewed any manner of simple vocab words. The idea was to speak to a toddler, so that’s what they all focused on. Words like: Go, Love, Want, Eat, Play, and Make were among the most common ones used.
Jill, Lucia, and the other neighbors continued to learn and kept things secret for as long as possible. People were working hard. They wanted desperately to communicate with the little girl. It was an inspirational thing for them to do, and none were more touched by the residents’ efforts than the Savitzs themselves.
Finally, the time had come to show Raphael, Glenda, and Sam what they had accomplished. As soon as the family arrived, they found themselves overwhelmed by the welcoming signs of their friends and neighbors. Glenda recalled it as one of the most emotional experiences she’d ever felt. A present for Sam would have made her grateful, this was so much more.
It Means So Much
“People are putting in so much time and energy to learn a foreign language because they’re dying to talk to my little girl. I don’t have words for that.’’ Glenda explained. Raphael Savitz feels much the same way. He is grateful for what their neighbors have done but understands that it goes much deeper than that.
“I want her to be happy,’’ Raphael said of his little girl. “I want her to have the life that she wants. I think what we’re trying to provide is the right background to get there.’’ Honestly, who doesn’t want the same thing for their child? To that end, the Savitzs have been giving Samantha every single opportunity they could for the past few years.
Sarah Honigfeld has been working as Sam’s teacher and mentor at The Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham ever since the girl was a mere three months old. She watched as the little girl blossomed from a timid toddler to a model for her peers. She was just as shocked and inspired as Sam’s parents were at what their neighbors accomplished.
An Amazing Situation
“It’s an amazing situation that every deaf child should have,’’ she explained in the same interview. “I’m thinking about other children who are sent two or four hours away to attend a deaf school because that’s where their community is. She should not be an exception. This should be the standard for a deaf child…’’
A Special Place
Unfortunately for many other deaf children around the world, this particular Newton neighborhood is a rarity. That special nature is now felt every time a neighbor says hello to her parents, then leans down to greet Sam with sign language. At every turn, in the street, the grocery store, or by the canal, Sam feels included.
19-year-old Henry Marshall, a Harvard freshman, has also lived in the neighborhood his whole life and he, like so many of the other residents, couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve accomplished on Sam’s behalf. “She’s the most upbeat little girl I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve never seen her throw a tantrum or be upset. She always wants to play.’’
Always a Part
Terry Nowak, another resident, also spoke about the nature of their neighborhood. “This child will always be a child of this neighborhood. We will all be participants in helping her as she grows. We do that with each other’s children. The community is already in place. This is just a new way to express it.’’