According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, nearly two to three children of every 1,000 suffer from hearing loss or deafness. For these children and their families a multitude of events most take for granted—from baby’s first “coo” to hearing “I love you”—are met with obstacles. Despite the setbacks, a stronger bond often is reached among families that must deal with hearing impairment.
The CARE Project works to bring hope to families dealing with hearing impairment, as the nonprofit organization offers counseling aimed at processing the emotional stages of grief. Founded by Johnnie Sexton—who became versified with the complications of hearing loss by observing a childhood neighbor—CARE holds an annual gala to bring awareness and raise funds for the many retreats they hold to empower families. The retreats host speakers and come at no cost to attendees.
“They make families feel that they are not alone,” Sexton says. “It brings them in contact with at least a dozen other families, all of whom have children who are deaf and hard of hearing, and cements friendships and bonds [that last] for life.”
The retreats create a snowball effect, too. Parents who have previously attended become mentors for families newly turned on to CARE. Already, CARE has hosted three retreats in 2014, with the next one slated for October, which will target teens and tweens.
Next year they will expand their prowess by undertaking a family retreat specifically geared toward the Latino community. Having recently received a grant from the Oticon Foundation in Denmark, The CARE Project looks to spread its reach to include 10 more states over the coming years. All of these feats have been made possible by the funds and recognition generated by their annual galas, which have allowed The CARE Project’s message to spread well beyond southeastern NC.
This Saturday, September 20, the fourth annual gala will be held at the newly opened Union Station building on Cape Fear Community College’s campus in downtown Wilmington. Though food, live music and an auction will take place, the event’s biggest draw will be honorary guest Justin LeBlanc, a deaf fashion designer who placed third in Liftetime’s Emmy-winning show “Project Runway.”
A huge fan of the design reality series, Sexton reached out to LeBlanc’s family after watching season 12. He met mom and dad Kathy Edwards and Gerald LeBlanc for lunch in Raleigh and asked them to serve on CARE’s Teens Task Force. “They said yes and the rest is history!” Sexton notes.
Every year, Sexton utilizes the theme “Celebrate the Art of Hearing” into the CARE galas, featuring fashion shows and auctioning art work, even showing films that were locally made about CARE. LeBlanc seemed a perfect fit for the 2014 event not only because of his artistic talent, but he graduated from NC State with a degree in architecture. LeBlanc later studied fashion at the Art Institute of Chicago, and today he has returned to NC State as an assistant professor in the department of design.
“The similarities between architecture and fashion can be seen throughout the usage of geometry and shape, with the shared goal of protecting our bodies from the elements,” LeBlanc describes of the transition. “Through architecture, we create a shelter; through fashion, we create coverage. The only difference is the scale and the choice of materials.”
Born deaf, LeBlanc puts a name and face to overcoming auditory impairments on a national scale. During his “Project Runway” experience, the one-of-a-kind spirit gave his fellow contestants lessons in sign language. More importantly, he dispelled ideas that living as a deaf person is a crippling hindrance.
“I was literally crying tears of joy most of the episodes as I saw him move forward and bring about awareness in the public eye about his journey in life associated with being deaf,” Sexton proclaims. “His life is the exact embodiment of what CARE is all about: moving families and individuals toward resilience!”
“It was such a surreal experience: going through the application process and then finding out I got on the show,” LeBlanc details. “It was like a dream and it still is now—truly a gift I have been given.”
Perhaps the most pivotal moment in his “Project Runway” journey was when he debuted his final collection, made with 3D printed circular accessories, a direct representation of sound waves. After visiting his dad in a laboratory one day, LeBlanc got the idea to make a beautiful, white, crystal-like garment made of pipette tips, as part of the required “unconventional look.”
“Used for experiments, loved the shape of them,” he says. “And I love the sound of the tips as they moved together. So I designed the form of the garment from carpet backing and ordered thousands of pipette tips. The tips were then hand-sewn onto the garment form.”
LeBlanc described the sound of the dress as the model strutted the runway like that of hearing rain fall for the first time, at age 18. LeBlanc’s cochlear implant—an electric device that can allow the profoundly deaf to hear—was a life-altering decision, one he didn’t take lightly. He had to undergo surgery, and speech and hearing training for a year to adjust to this new form of communication.
“I don’t know where I would be now if I did not receive the implant,” he elaborates. “But it was not a clear-cut decision, because I was proud of who I was as a deaf person . . . My appearance on ‘Project Runway,’ I hope, has enhanced people’s understanding of deafness a little and made them more comfortable with this way of life.”
“Project Runway” was only the beginning in LeBlanc’s fashion career. He recently premiered his 2015 spring/summer line in Raleigh. His latest collection revisits his thesis project, “Inaudible,” at the Art Institute of Chicago. The installation placed participants underwater, as they then spoke to a camera, in order to demonstrate the distortion LeBlanc hears in voices. He will show the collection as part of Charlotte Fashion Guild Style Week on September 27. (Folks can keep up with his career at www.jleblancdesign.com)
LeBlanc intends to speak about the ongoing support his family extends and how deafness has shaped him as a person at the CARE gala. “Probably the most significant hurdle is overcoming people’s preconceptions about me as a deaf man,” he says. “Some have underestimated my talent and capability. But that has made me even more determined to fulfill my dreams and ambitions. . . . [it] has made me a very compassionate person and someone who strives to see the possibilities and unique characteristics of all people. It has opened me to the infinite possibilities art has, in all its forms—to unlock the expressive abilities of us all.”
The CARE Project Gala
Saturday, September 20th, 6 p.m.
Union Station, CFCC
502 N. Front Street