BARNEGAT – Anthony De Franco, 33, moved to Barnegat this spring and has already established himself in Southern Ocean County.
Born Deaf and also autistic, De Franco primarily uses American Sign Language (ASL) to convey thoughts by employing talking hands and expressive facial gestures.
A cochlear implant installed when De Franco was 9 stimulates a nerve in his ear and gives him some hearing ability. De Franco also has limited speech and can read lips to some extent. Masking related to COVID-19 makes the latter just about impossible.
De Franco graduated from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., with a bachelor’s degree in Deaf Studies. He subsequently worked as an ASL tutor at Bergen Community College for over seven years.
An entrepreneur of sorts, De Franco began developing classes that focused on the basics of ASL. His students learned to sign the alphabet and numbers and colors and phrases. Parents eagerly sat in on De Franco’s storytelling sessions.
De Franco’s move to Barnegat put him in a position to help break down communication barriers close to his new home. He figured he found the ideal place for summer ASL classes after a day in the sun and surf.
“I’m announcing that I will start to do sign language classes at the Bay Beach,” said De Franco. “I can’t wait to teach sign language in Barnegat this summer, and it will be fun for everyone of all ages.”
People reacted positively to De Franco’s offer and had lots of questions for him. Many wanted to know how long it would take to learn sign language. Others asked if young children were candidates for ASL classes.
A champion for the Deaf, De Franco admires non-deaf parents who sign with their babies even before they speak words.
“It helps them to communicate better than if they were communicating in just one language,” De Franco explained. “Recent research studies show that babies should learn sign language from birth because it can boost their language skills to communicate better and avoid meltdowns.”
Pastor Dawn Corlew of the United Methodist Church of Waretown learned of De Franco’s relocation to the area and reached out to him.
“Carl Anderson is one of our ASL interpreters and started many of the Deaf initiatives in Ocean County,” shared Corlew. Thirteen years ago, Carl and one of our former pastors decided to have interpreters at services. Before COVID, we had a thriving Deaf culture and have been one of the largest within the United Methodist churches.”
The Deaf community doesn’t just have the advantage of ASL interpreters when they come to services at the Waretown church. They actually get to feel the music.
“The first five pews have “butt kickers” as we call them,” Corlew explained. “If the Deaf sit there, they can feel the vibration of the music as it’s playing.”
De Franco took up Corlew’s offer to visit the church and now takes turns with other ASL interpreters. Although his classes at the beach have ended, others have reached out to him to learn how to sign.
A couple of months ago, De Franco did a sign language class in Gille Park in Lacey for some homeschooled students. The children caught on quickly and were able to learn ABCs, spell their names in American Sign Language, and sign their names in just 30 minutes.
“I also volunteer to teach another group of kids at Hearts of Mercy (in Barnegat,)” shared De Franco. “Their coordinator Kristin Santorelli thought it would be wonderful for the children to learn sign language.”
Agnes Maderich of the Barnegat Quaker Meeting House decided that the small building would be an ideal location for De Franco to conduct indoor ASL classes. She and Fred Behm have already attended their fourth class with the young man who has a big heart and vibrant smile.
“Anthony is very impressive,” Maderich said. “We’ve had people come to our open houses just because they wanted to talk to Anthony. One woman wanted Anthony to teach her son.”
De Franco’s normal charge for classes is $20, although he’s willing to work with someone in need. He’s found the Barnegat community to be very acceptive of him and respectful of his deafness. De Franco credits his parents for his determination.
“Both parents are very supportive of me and always wanted me to succeed,” said De Franco. “They want me to do amazing things to inspire others, especially Deaf children to do the same.”