“From the very beginning of The CARE Project, Xris and I have filmed family stories,” Johnnie Sexton tells.
Sexton founded The CARE (Counseling, Audiologic Rehabilitation and Education) Project in 2008, when during his line of work as an audiologist he saw first-hand struggles families faced in rearing deaf children and children with hearling loss. He upstarted the project with his partner, Xris Kessler, with the goal of offering counseling and hosting family retreats so folks going through similar struggles and victories could offer support and help to one another.
“These brave families share their emotional journeys, which have proven to be helpful for the family featured and for future families in counseling,” Sexton tells.
Sexton has used the films as tools to help professionals in regard to the sensitivity of each family’s struggle, and to showcase to others advocacy and acceptance. When Ashley Robbins joined as a volunteer at CARE’s November 2015 retreat on Bald Head Island, she was moved beyond words at the footage Kessler had captured throughout the years.
“These filmed stories are the most powerful tools that The CARE Project has,” she told Sexton, “and they should be shared with the world.” So when choosing the theme for the sixth annual gala, Sexton looked no further than the reel, including new footage Kessler had been filming with the help of Robbins over the last year.
“Families always have the option to be filmed or not,” Sexton clarifies. “Each story tells a unique emotional journey, and yet all stories have some commonality. They each highlight feelings of being alone, the challenges of raising a child with hearing loss, and the need for community.”
The Hughes are among three featured families in the 5- to 15-minute films that will screen at the annual gala, which takes place this Saturday. The Hughes have been a part of the CARE family for many years now.
“To be selected as one of the families featured in the films is truly an honor and a privilege,” Laura Hughes says. She and her husband David have gained a great deal of support in rearing 6-year-old Gabriel, who has hearing loss, alongside Noah, 4.
“Filming was very cathartic for my husband and I,” she continues, “especially my husband, who rarely openly shares the emotions he has experienced since our son’s diagnosis. I am just thankful that it is another way our testimony will hopefully help others.”
Gala attendees will be able to pop into three different rooms in Cape Fear Community College’s Union Station, within the first 90 minutes of the evening, as the films screen on a loop. Not only will they be able to watch and hear about The CARE Project’s work and impact, they’ll be able to speak to the families, all of whom will be in attendance.
“Our hope is that this intimate experience will give guests an honest and upfront picture of our community, and how our retreats serve our families,” Sexton says.
Just in the past year The CARE Project has increased its reach beyond southeastern NC. Sexton hosted a Latino retreat and was able to secure more one-day retreats. As well, through a national grant, Sexton traveled to 10 states in order to establish new partnerships that have already resulted in the initiation of family retreats in those respective states. All funds raised at the gala—upward of $35,000—help make the retreats, workshops and educational offerings possible.
“Before we became a part of The CARE Project, I can honestly say I don’t recall ever seeing another child with hearing aids or a cochlear implant,” Laura Hughes continues. “There was a time when our hearing-impaired son—especially when we had our second child who is normal hearing—would ask why he had to wear hearing aids when his brother and friends didn’t. He hit a rough patch and didn’t want to wear them as well. He still insists on taking them out in photos, opining that it’s no different than his grandmother who takes her glasses off in photos. But, after our first retreat, he made some wonderful friends who were ‘like him.’ And, he no longer sees himself as different from all other children.”
Retreats help build bonds between children that allow them a sense of normalcy, especially in the face of odds that don’t always provide an easy path.
For instance, schools in NC handle children with hearing needs in a variety of ways, depending on the county the school’s located in, and whether it’s public or charter or private, etc. “There is hardly any consistency,” Laura tells. “For our son, he doesn’t have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Instead, he has accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (American’s With Disabilities Act). That’s a federal law, so you would expect a consistent interpretation and application of it. But, no. Hearing other families share their stories of how they navigate their child’s educational needs has been both therapeutic and incredibly helpful.”
The gala allows families and their children a chance to get together and have fun, as well as welcome the community at large to learn about their stories. Tickets are $75 and include an open bar and six chef stations, featuring delicious delights from Catch, Brasserie du Soleil, Pine Valley Market, and Brent’s Bistro. Newbies have joined this year, too, including YoSake and The Complex Bean.
An auction will take place, with the offerings of a vacation getaway in Blowing Rock, jewelry from Lumina Gem, artwork by Elizabeth Singletary, and even items for kids. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet will host a chance for two lucky guests to win $10,000 each. All of the monies from tickets sales, raffles, onsite fundraising, and the like go back to help families and children process hearing challenges, and endure emotional stages of healing and grief as need be.
“Our son no longer sees himself as different,” Laura says. “Although he may not see his CARE friends often, he talks about them frequently. He has also learned how to self-advocate and feels comfortable openly talking about his hearing loss and wearing hearing aids when he meets someone new.”