In 1994, Happy Hands Education Center began with a mission to serve children from birth to age six who are deaf, hard of hearing or have communicative disorders according to Al Proo, CEO and Founder of Happy Hands, 8801 S. Garnett Road.Proo has made it his mission to end illiteracy among the deaf population.
Two percent of the total population is born deaf. The average reading level of a deaf adult is third grade. Yet, Happy Hands is the only agency in Oklahoma to serve deaf children from birth to age three.“And, it should not be and that’s why we are here,” Proo said.
Proo, a retired police officer, and his wife Judy served as pastors to a church for the deaf and as professional interpreters. For more than 20 years, he says the majority of their friends were deaf.“So wherever the deaf were, we were,” Proo said. “We began to see the majority of deaf people we would work with were functionally illiterate.”
Communication must happen for reading to happen. Reading, writing and math are directly proportionate to the amount of language a child has according to Proo.“Here are the statistics that really changed my mind as to why we need to have this school here,” Proo said. “We learn 75 percent of language by the time we are two and a half.”
Often, parents don’t find out their child has a hearing loss until a child is two and a half.“So parents are saying he’s just maturing at his own rate, but by the time they figure it out, it’s too late,” Proo said.A faith-based year-round program, the goal is to make sure children get to first grade literate.
“What was happening prior to Happy Hands, is that children were getting to first grade functionally illiterate,” Proo said. “No social skills, because these parents didn’t know where to go, there was no place for them to go. There were no opportunities for language for them.”
As a pastor at a church for the deaf, Proo said he began to see the problem. Deaf people didn’t bring their Bible to church. He began asking questions as to why they didn’t want to bring their Bibles. “They said, ‘Why bring it, if you can’t read it.’”
As pastors, Proo said they were there to show the people they cared for them, not there to pity them. Their ministry began when the couple took a sign language class at their church.
“We loved the people and wanted to see them successful and know the Lord,” Proo said. “We wanted them to be able to have their own personal devotion time with the Bible. So, that’s why we are here, I want to make a difference for these kids.”
At Happy Hands, as one walks through halls of the school the children are happy, smiling and communicating with their teachers and fellow students. Toddlers are using sign language to say ‘thank you’ to their teachers for their snack.The school is tuition based, but scholarships are available. According to the brochure, “Happy Hands never turns away a child with special needs for a lack of financial resources.”
After 19 years, Proo said Happy Hands graduates are now thriving in other schools because of the foundation they received in the program. “Now, when they get to first grade, they can do first grade work,” Proo said.
“There’s kids now at Wright Elementary and Edison High School that are now on the student council, unheard of before, because they couldn’t do anything. They couldn’t carry on a conversation or they couldn’t use an interpreter. They are in marching bands now.”