In the summer of 2017, Jane Jonas and her wife were vacationing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina when a massive power outage forced thousands to evacuate the islands. Not ready to return home to the District, the couple scoured Airbnb for vacation rentals and found a cabin in the mountains of West Virginia in a town called Lost River. Neither of them had heard of the place before, but they instantly fell in love with its wild, forested landscape — and the solitude.
“It didn’t feel like any place I’d been to before,” said Jonas, who grew up backpacking with her family near their home in northern California. “All the other places where I’d vacationed around here were full of people.” When her wife, Laurie, suggested buying property there, Jonas, an entrepreneur, wondered whether there might be a business opportunity.
Now, two years later, Jonas and two friends, Shawn Harrington and Andrew St. Cyr, have launched Lost River Vacations, an eco-friendly tiny house retreat on a 22-acre property in Lost River. Two and a half hours away from the District, the retreat is scheduled to open in June.
The three friends are all small-businesses owners in the D.C. area, but what makes their story unique is not that they’re starting a trendy new venture — it’s that their trendy new venture is owned, managed and supported almost exclusively by the deaf community. Jonas, Harrington, and St. Cyr, who met as students at Gallaudet University, are deaf; the tiny house was built by deaf carpenters; a deaf-owned company, Catalyst+, will design hiking trails on the property; and the walls of the house will be decorated with artwork by deaf artists.
That’s part of the purpose of Lost River Vacations — to support the deaf economy.
“Deaf people and deaf businesses have been marginalized for a long time,” Harrington said recently at Red Bear Brewing Co. in Washington’s NoMa neighborhood, where Lost River Vacations launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to expand the retreat. “If you take a deaf business and a hearing business, people typically choose the hearing business," Harrington said. By encouraging everyone to visit their retreat, the trio hopes hearing people, who might otherwise be reluctant to hire deaf businesses and individuals, will see the value deaf people can add to a project and be inspired to work with them.
The retreat will open with one tiny house that sleeps four available to rent. But the trio hopes to raise enough to build 10 more small abodes, including a treehouse and a yurt, in the years ahead. This past week, they raised enough money to build a second house, which they hope will be up and running later this summer.
The retreat, previously a hunting ground, is two miles from Lost River State Park. It lies outside the range of cell service and sits at an elevation of 1,850 feet with views of mountains and forests — and no signs of other human inhabitants. (But urban travelers need not fear: “High-speed WiFi,” the retreat’s website reads, “makes it easy to post your best pictures to Instagram!”)
More than 500 deaf people gathered for the fundraiser at Red Bear Brewing Co. over craft beers, sausages and free cake to support Lost River Vacations. All across the room, people in the crowd — which included government workers, small-business owners and students — were signing to one another while the deaf DJ, Nico DiMarco, blared songs such as “No Scrubs” and “Single Ladies” loudly enough that the audience could “feel” the beats and vibrations of the music. (DiMarco’s brother, Nyle, also deaf, was the 2015 winner of the reality show “America’s Next Top Model.”)
It was no accident that the event was full of creative talent, said Calvin Young, a filmmaker who created the marketing video for Lost River Vacations, as he interacted with the crowd at the brewery.
“We have something called ‘deaf gain,’” said Young, explaining that when one sense is missing, the others are amplified — meaning that in the deaf community, there are a disproportionate number of cooks, artists, and designers. “Hearing people might focus on sound,” Young said, “But when I’m filming, I’ll focus on movement or the facial expression. There is no sound in my videos. I want people to see my film as I see them, through deaf eyes.”
Rosemary Latin, the baker of the free cake, was sitting along a wall watching the party unfold. A pastry chef, she founded Rosemary’s Fabulous Cakes in Keedysville, Md., in 2003. Many of her clients are deaf, but she also has a roster of hearing clients. Some didn’t realize she was deaf when they first approached her. “When they found out,” Latin said, “they were a little resistant at first.” They worried about how they would communicate and work together. But Latin reassured them. She told them they could communicate via texting rather than calling. “I had to be a bit more assertive,” she said.
Entrepreneurs such as Latin, Young, and Jonas and her partners are bucking trends in the deaf community. According to an analysis by the National Deaf Center, which used data from the 2014 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, the employment rate among the deaf is 48 percent compared with 72 percent in the hearing community, and nearly half of all deaf people are not in the labor force, compared with a quarter of hearing people.
“The deaf community is starving for entrepreneurs,” said Ryan Maliszewski at Red Bear.
Maliszewski directs the Gallaudet Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute, which launched in fall 2017. Most students at Gallaudet, he said, major in communication studies, interpretation or social work, and go on to work in deaf-related roles, such as teachers in deaf schools. Though that’s fine, he also wants the students to not be afraid to think differently. Being deaf, Maliszewski points out, equips students with a set of characteristics that makes them natural entrepreneurs — such as assertiveness and the ability to quickly adapt and be resourceful.
“Our community has some absolutely phenomenal talent, but they do not communicate using sound, so they are unknown,” Jonas said, “so it’s my passion to get their work and talents out there.”
Another major goal of Lost River Vacations is to expose more hearing people to the deaf community.
The retreat will welcome deaf and hearing people alike — and the three co-founders hope hearing people who come will leave with a different perspective on deaf individuals. Right now, Harrington explained, many hearing people see deafness as a disability, a term that implies victimhood and helplessness. They don’t understand how deaf people can function in a culture as auditory as ours. “Once when I was at a restaurant,” Harrington said, “a stranger gave me a $20 bill saying ‘I’m so sorry you’re deaf.’ But it’s like, no, I can pay for my own food! But they learn you’re deaf and they think everything is falling apart, that there’s something wrong with you.”
It’s similar with parents, he explained. Over 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and many of these parents believe the only way for their children to succeed is by learning to speak. There is a major schism in the deaf community between people who embrace American Sign Language as their primary method of communication and those who want themselves or their children to assimilate into hearing culture with cochlear implants and speech therapy.
Growing up, Jonas sat in the middle of that schism. She was raised by hearing parents in Berkeley, Calif. Her mother, a high school foreign-language teacher, understood the critical importance of language to the development of a young child, so she learned to sign with Jonas. But Jonas’s parents also sent her to thousands of hours of speech therapy classes. Eventually, they enrolled her in deaf schools. Jonas thrived academically, and when the time came to choose a college, she decided to attend Gallaudet. She considered going to a more mainstream school, such as the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she’d been accepted, but Jonas realized she didn’t want to spend the next four years of her life speaking and learning through an interpreter. She wanted to “figure out how to be a deaf person in the world,” she said.
Jonas, Harrington, and St. Cyr want to show deaf children, their parents, and the hearing community that it’s possible to be productive and successful while embracing one’s deaf identity.
Seeing Lost River Vacations launch, Maliszewski said, gave him goose bumps. “I want students to hear more of these stories,” he said, "and say, ‘Oh, if they can do it, I can do it, too.’”
All interviews, with the exception of Jane Jonas’s, were conducted via an interpreter.