Jennifer Willis: ASL Volunteer

June 23, 2021

June 2021 Volunteer of the Month

Jennifer Willis

KIND’s Baltimore office is pleased to recognize Jennifer Willis for our June 2021 Volunteer Spotlight! We are excited to be able to highlight the very special work of one of our volunteers this month. For the past few years, Jennifer has provided invaluable assistance in a unique case for a child who is deaf and had almost no formal language education. The child’s KIND attorney commended Jennifer’s dedication: “Her work with [the client] for these past years has been absolutely excellent, generous, and trauma-informed. She exemplifies the kind of volunteer that helps KIND clients thrive. She’s also provided invaluable support in using her contacts within the Deaf community to help me locate great experts and evidence for [the client]’s asylum case.”

Jennifer provided the below reflections of her volunteer work with KIND:

How did you start volunteering with KIND as an ASL interpreter and what drew you to this opportunity?

The first thing to know is, I am not an interpreter. I am a Teacher of the Deaf who was asked to assist with a case after several attempts with a formal interpreter were unsuccessful in creating a shared understanding of the information being presented due to the client’s limited language abilities. Interpreters are trained to receive information in one language and deliver it in another, which may include altering word choice or grammatical structure of a statement so that the intended meaning of the speaker is also included. However, with this particular client, the need was so much greater. For those of us with a complete foundational language, we can use familiar words and descriptions to help define new vocabulary and abstract concepts. In the case of this client, who had no access to formal language prior to age 14, that foundation of knowledge was missing. Therefore, language alone was not sufficient at helping her understand her role in the legal process or to tap into her visual memories from a time when she had no means of labeling what she was seeing. So Alejandra Morisi, an attorney with KIND and a friend of mine, reached out to see if my skills as a teacher working with deaf children might be a better match to try and connect with this client to help her understand the complexities of the asylum process and tell her captivating story of how she came to the US. 

What did you find unique about interpreting for the case of an immigrant child? Were there any additional considerations or adjustments involved in your interpretation?

Initially, I knew that my goal was to try and use modified and expanded language to explain this very unique situation and novel law vocabulary to someone who had only begun to learn American Sign Language (ASL) 5 years ago. I was also new to immigration law myself, so I had to ask lots of clarifying questions to make sure that I understood not only what the lawyer was saying, but also the whole concept of what was being discussed. I knew that if I didn’t understand the reason for all the meetings, the intended end goal, or how long the process took, that the client likely did not either but may not have the courage or the right words to ask these questions. Along the way I had to learn some of the conditions of my role, such as making sure to not lead the client in the way I presented questions or checked for clarification. What I interpreted to the lawyer needed to be her story as she told it, not what I assumed that she meant. And I had to recognize my own limitations as we got deeper into the asylum process, and realize that I could not complete this task alone. Luckily through the grace of God and connections with others in the field of Deaf education, I was able to locate a team member who was a certified interpreter with years of experience working with deaf immigrants with limited language abilities. Through our collaboration and teamwork, I was able to witness the power of language immersion. Immersion is more than simply the passing of a spoken or signed message back and forth to communicate, but rather it is the incorporation of actions, gestures, pictures, drawings, and any other modality possible to help someone understand a message/concept and formulate a response. It was through true language immersion that we were able to capture a remarkable story based solely on what the client had observed visually or the few simple gestures used by her family members to direct her.

* ‘deaf’ refers to an individual with the physical condition of hearing loss; ‘Deaf’ refers to someone who embraces the culture and language (American Sign Language) of the Deaf Community.

Please describe a moment in your volunteer work that left an impact on you.

The moment that I realized the power of the work being done at KIND. The fact that the lives and futures of the children served by this great organization are based on the ability of the attorneys to present a suitable defense that warrants that child staying in the US. And in doing so must gain the trust of fragile children and make them feel comfortable enough to open up and share what may be painful, terrifying, and/or heartbreaking memories. It was also impactful to hear firsthand the story of a deaf child growing up in a Central American country. It is difficult to fathom such a passive existence, being taken from place to place without the ability to ask, “Where are we going? What’s going to happen? Who are these people I am with?” When a child is born deaf in the US there is a buffet of services and supports available to parents to help their child learn an accessible language and receive a quality education. In many other countries those opportunities do not exist, or they come at such a high cost that families are not able to access them. An individual’s ability to communicate fluently, learn how to function in an increasingly complex and intellectually demanding world, or simply have meaningful engagement with other people can be severely impacted by a lack of accessible language.

What has been rewarding about working with this client?

It has been extremely rewarding to be able to use my skills to benefit someone in need. I mean what good are skills or knowledge if we don’t use them to support the greater good? I am also thankful that I was given the opportunity to work with KIND and learn more about what they do. Their wealth of knowledge and resources will be helpful for my area of work as I serve many immigrant families. I am hopeful that the knowledge I gained through this experience can be utilized again in the future to assist others in a similar situation.