In the Spotlight – Linda Sykora & Ronald McBride

Photo: Ronald McBride (left) & Linda Sykora (right)

With their roots tracing back to the midwestern United States decades ago, Linda Sykora and Ronald McBride had little idea they would end up over 4,000 miles west, moving and shaking a small Deaf community the middle of the Pacific.

Sykora grew up in Indiana, and worked in the nonprofit sector in Michigan before ending up in Hawaii. Originally from Michigan, McBride has called Hawaii home since the age of 17. He lived on each island before deciding Hawaii (Big) Island was where life was best.

Sykora and McBride are the respective President and Vice President of the Big Island Deaf Club, and together, they have worked to invigorate the Deaf Community on Big Island.

“In terms of services, we have nothing on Big Island,” Sykora said, with McBride agreeing. “I can’t emphasize that enough, and the struggles we face as a result are real.”

While they understand “thus is life” for those who choose to reside on the neighbor islands, Sykora and McBride wonder why more isn’t available for their community, especially when considering the Big Island has one of the larger populations of Deaf people outside of Oahu. While there is no exact figure, the estimated number of signing Deaf people currently living on the Big Island is 250, according to Sykora.

With that in mind, Sykora and McBride determined something had to be done. They believed the key to progress was to instill in their peers a vibrant sense of community. That began with the ability to gather, a critical part of what makes the Big Island Deaf Club a valuable resource for fellow residents.

Initially, the plan was to establish an island-wide association, but Sykora explained locals viewed such an effort as too formal and were reluctant to buy in. “We weren’t interested in setting up anything sophisticated; we just wanted to be able to gather together, share time with one another, and talk about ways we can support our community.”

Just over a year ago, in 2016, the Big Island Deaf Club became reality. The club has since hosted get-togethers each month, alternating between meetings and picnics. Events regularly see attendance in the 30s. Sykora and McBride also noted several immediate benefits of these gatherings, including fellowship and networking, before singling out access to knowledge as one of the main advantages.

“Unfortunately, for many of us information isn’t accessible,” McBride said.

To counter this, the club has partnered and collaborated with organizations such as Pacific Disabilities Center (PDC), the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Deaf and Hard of Hearing Advisory Board (DHHAB), the Statewide Comprehensive Service Center for Persons who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deafblind (CSC), and the Aloha State Association of the Deaf (ASAD).

“We take whatever information we get and we share it with our members in ways that are accessible to them,” Sykora said.

Sykora and McBride say the result is eye-opening. Club members digest this new information – whether it is an update from the State Legislature or a position statement issued by the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission – and engage in lively discussion, often leading to creative ideas for improving their community.

“One of our favorite things to do when we’re together is discuss different ways our lives could be better here, and ways we can make a difference for others in our community who might not be able to advocate for themselves,” Sykora said.

There’s no shortage of ideas, either.

Interacting with law enforcement has garnered attention nationwide, and the club is working with Hawaii County officials to create voluntary identification cards for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Tourism is a boon for the Big Island economy. The club aims to work with the local hospitality industry to increase access for a person who is Deaf – whether they’re a prospective member of the job force, or a future visitor.

Literacy rates in Deaf children are staggeringly low. The club is discussing strategies to advocate for Big Island children and their families so that they have better access to early language resources.

“The bottom line is, whenever people in our community find themselves needing help, we want to be able to say, ‘Don’t worry; we are here to embrace you and support you however we can,’” Sykora declared.

One example occurred this past December, when Waimea Elementary School hosted its second annual “Deaf Santa” event. At this event, Deaf students are given the opportunity to meet Santa and make a Christmas wish using sign language. As the event drew near, funding challenges arose, and Deaf Santa was in jeopardy of being cancelled.

“One of the teachers of the Deaf – bless her heart – started paying out of their own pocket to make sure the event happened,” Sykora said. “No teacher should ever have to do this.”
Sykora and McBride reached out to club members. The response was a slew of monetary donations, all which went to offset costs for hosting Deaf Santa.

“The Deaf community is here for each other, there’s never been any doubt about that,” Sykora said, beaming. “We just need an efficient way of coming together and organizing.”

According to Sykora, one reason she and McBride work well together is because they reside on opposite sides of the island – she is in Waikoloa; he, Pahoa. This allows them to reach out to more people in Big Island’s Deaf community.

“Our club is open to members from all corners of the Deaf community on Big Island, including parents of deaf children, siblings, and children of deaf adults,” Sykora concluded. “We want each of them to know that our club is available to them as a resource.”

——–

For more information about the Big Island Deaf Club, please contact Linda Sykora at lsykora063@gmail.com.