words: Marla Cantrell
Images: courtesy The Richland Group
On the drive to The Richland Group in Fort Smith, Arkansas, traffic is loud. A horn blares, music rolls from the open window of an Escalade, a plane zooms overhead as it nears the city’s airport. Each sound tells part of this day’s story. The woman whose heavy hand is on the horn can’t get where she’s going soon enough. The man with his radio turned up taps the steering wheel while he moves down the road, smiling as if he’s just won something. The plane, so far above, is impossible to judge, although it’s a safe bet that passengers are already clutching cell phones, waiting for the moment they’re able to tell those they love that they’ve touched down safely.
Once inside The Richland Group, a marketing company staffed with seven creative people, the outside noise falls away. Still, people are talking, phones chime, and in the background music plays. At one of the desks sits graphic designer Huy Nguyen, an intern who’s been here for seven weeks. His head is down, and he’s working intently. He is not privy to the conversations taking place around him, not because he ignores them but because he can’t hear a syllable of what’s being said. Huy has been deaf since birth. He was twelve when he and his parents moved more than 8,000 miles from their home in Vietnam to Fort Smith. One of his first challenges was learning English and adapting to the way we use sign language in this country.
In a chair across from Huy sits his interpreter, Penny Wolgamott, who has been brought in to work with Huy. In the weeks since he’s been interning, Penny has learned a lot about Huy, and a lot about the world of marketing. She’s intrigued by both; however, it’s Huy who makes her day. When she describes him, she uses words like “sweet” and “funny” and “thoughtful.” And then she points to a nearby table, where a box of doughnuts sits, a gift from Huy to his co-workers on this Friday morning.
At The Richland Group, Huy has been part of projects that have thrilled him. He’s learned to do animation for ads on websites, and he is in awe of the process. He’s created content to promote the local Boys Shelter, for the Pea Ridge National Park, and he’s gotten to be part of a professional team. At times, Penny has been signing for three or four people, making sure Huy doesn’t miss a word of the group conversations that keep him up to date on the company’s goals.
Every day, we communicate through websites and on social media to get our clients’ messages across. I thought it would be another great avenue to learn to communicate with someone who’s deaf.
None of this would have happened if Cheslea Harper, the company’s co-owner, hadn’t responded to a request from Huy’s school, SouthWest Collegiate Institute for the Deaf in Big Spring, Texas. Cheslea had gotten an email asking if The Richland Group would be interested in having Huy intern, and she thought it was a unique opportunity. “We’re in the communication business. Every day, we communicate through websites and on social media to get our clients’ messages across. I thought it would be another great avenue to learn to communicate with someone who’s deaf.
“When Huy came here to meet us, he brought his portfolio and his drawing skills were amazing. We learned that he had all the hours he needed to graduate, but he had to have an internship to do it. And that clinched it; we had to help him.”
In the days that followed, Cheslea and her husband and business partner, Mark, found out new things about their team. They loved having Huy under their wing, and they became fast friends with Penny. What surprised Cheslea most was when Huy met Hannah Jay, the company’s lead developer. “I knew Hannah baked a mean cupcake, and I knew she loved horses, but I had no idea she could sign a little,” Cheslea says.
The office uses a large marker board to keep up with projects and their lead designer, Ashley White, worked with him the most, adding Huy’s name to the board, making sure he understood his assignments.
Since he’s settled in, everyone at the office knows some sign language. They sign “good morning.” They sign “good night.” Their effort makes Huy happy. In fact, he says, every day he’s spent here has been a joy.
Asked what she and her team have gained and Cheslea says it’s respect and admiration for Huy, and patience, but not in that “this is so frustrating” way. Instead, the patience they’ve learned has been a blessing. In the field of communications, ideas fly swiftly. Having to slow that train of thought down to pass on an idea or instructions has so many benefits, including finding a certain clarity that comes from taking a few seconds to get a message across.
On a personal note, The Richland Group has stopped to consider what life would be like if it suddenly went silent. Even typing on a keyboard has its own sound. We choose music to calm us down or pick us up. The sound of a friend’s voice can be a lifeline tossed out across rough waters when times get hard. Morning sounds different than night. A city street different than a country road.
On Huy’s last day, he brought in a box of chocolates and a card. “In the card he thanked us,” Cheslea says. “He said nobody else would give him a chance, and I just wanted to cry.”
In that note is so much gratitude. Next month, Huy will graduate, and the job hunt will begin. Right now, The Richland Group is at full capacity, so there are no openings. But when Huy begins his search, he’ll have a much better portfolio, real-life experience, and an excellent reference for potential employers.
He’s looking forward to seeing what will happen. His whole life, he’s walked through challenges like a traveller crossing a bridge. From birth, he’s been deaf. At twelve, he moved to a new country. All along the way, he’s found caring people, like Mr. Holmes, his art teacher at Northside High School, who encouraged him to keep creating. His parents love him so much. “Dad is proud,” he says. “My mother tells me I’m her only baby; I’m their only child.” He has old friends who make his life bright and new friends from The Richland Group who keep encouraging him to aim high.
If he could pass on one bit of advice, it would be this. “People struggle, but you can ask for help. You can get a tutor or a teacher. If you want to do something, you can find someone to help you. And if a new student comes in, you be supportive of them. Just like people were supportive of me.”
As he signs these words, he smiles. The light above his desk illuminates him as he sits there, this young man dressed in a pressed blue shirt and khakis, his fingers moving swiftly and Penny nodding as he does, ready to convey his thoughts. The light that shines from above seems to go directly to Huy’s heart and then out again, into this room, across the nearby desks, to everyone lucky enough to be in its path.