Cynthia Cook doesn't think of her deafness as a handicap.
The 35-year-old single mother is raising two young children, volunteers at an elementary school, is enrolled in job development classes, is honing her vocabulary and math skills and is waiting to hear whether she got a housekeeping job at a posh D.C. hotel.
Cook does it with the help of Deaf-REACH, a nonprofit organization aimed at making the District's economically and socially disadvantaged deaf population and mentally ill deaf residents more independent and helping them adjust to life in the hearing community.
"We do a whole range of things for deaf people," said Sarah Brown, the organization's executive director.
The organization was launched in 1972 after a group of religious leaders assessed the needs of the District's deaf population and found few services, particularly for the mentally ill deaf community. With 25 full-time employees and a $1.2 million annual budget funded in part by the D.C. Commission on Mental Health Services and the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Deaf-REACH serves 84 men and 86 women.
Most of the clients are D.C. residents, though a handful come from Maryland. Many attended Kendall Elementary School and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, both on the campus of Gallaudet University, Brown said.
Deaf-REACH has an array of programs, including housing assistance, a food pantry, individual counseling, education classes and budgeting. The agency also offers banking services twice a week to its clients.
Deaf-REACH operates two group homes in the Brookland neighborhood in Northeast--Otis House and Community Housing for the Hearing Impaired (CHHI). Otis House is a licensed seven-bedroom home for mentally ill deaf residents. The home is staffed 24 hours a day to help residents learn personal hygiene, food preparation, housekeeping and social skills. Residents also learn how to travel by Metrobus and train.
CHHI (pronounced "key"), is a six-bedroom home for the mentally ill deaf who have basic life skills and need minimal supervision. Deaf-REACH also owns a 24-unit apartment building in Southeast.
Brian Durand, 30, moved into Otis House three weeks ago from Long Island, N.Y., at the insistence of his brother, a D.C. police officer.
Durand suffers from a disease that has robbed him of his hearing and eventually will steal his eyesight.
But his disability has not prevented him from learning basic computer skills. He also is learning how to write letters so that he can keep in touch with two other brothers in Virginia and Texas.
Less than a block from the group homes is Deaf Horizons, the organization's clubhouse. The two-story, white frame house offers resume writing, mock job interviews and lessons in computer and clerical skills. It also has recreational activities.
On any given day, the house is filled with clients eager to learn how to use computers, polish their math skills or socialize.
A Halloween party is scheduled for tomorrow. A week ago, Cook, Durand and others began hanging orange and black streamers and taping cardboard cutouts of ghosts and pumpkins to windows and doors.
Antonio Meekins, 40, started coming to the clubhouse five years ago. He has learned how to mow lawns and is currently taking driver's education classes.
Meekins, who lost his hearing at age 4 and suffers from mental illness, comes to the clubhouse five days a week.
He gets up at 6 a.m. and takes two buses from his apartment in Northwest, where he lives alone, so he can arrive by 8 a.m.
He stays until 3 p.m. when he leaves for his night job as a janitor at an office building. "I enjoy the deaf people here," Meekins said through a sign-language interpreter. "I like to visit. I learn things."
David Cook, 43, said Deaf-REACH helped save his life. The father of three is a recovering drug and alcohol abuser who said it was difficult to get help from groups such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous because they didn't offer sign-language interpreters at their meetings. Deaf-REACH has substance-abuse programs with interpreters.
"I got lost at those other groups," said David Cook, who was born deaf. "Everybody talks around me. With the deaf group, we have a common language."
Since coming to Deaf-REACH seven years ago, David Cook said, he has learned to use a dictionary, has met new friends, volunteers with the food bank and recently got a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant.
"Deaf-REACH, I'm glad they're there," said Cook, who lives with his ailing mother in Prince George's County. "I really feel welcome here and I'm motivated to come."
CAPTION: Otis House resident Linda Carpenter, above, jokes with a group home program specialist. At right, resident Gail Lazorko cleans windowsills after dinner.
CAPTION: At left, resident Brian Durand speaks with a staff member at one group home for mentally ill deaf residents. Above, resident Pam Nutt talks during a house meeting.
CAPTION: "We do a whole range of things for deaf people," said Sarah Brown, the executive director of Deaf-REACH.
CAPTION: Staff member Amy Quaynor, right, leads a meeting with residents of Otis House group home including, Pam Nutt, left, and Gail Lazorko.