As an audiologist, Johnnie Sexton saw firsthand the effects that rearing a hearing-impaired child could have on a family. Though medical technologies could help the child get through life on a day-to-day basis, the emotional strains of dealing with it always wasn’t covered. So, Sexton decided in 2008 he wanted to do more within his 35-year profession. Thus, he started The CARE Project (“Counseling, Audiologic Rehabilitation and Education”).
Sexton began the project by offering support training to families in Wilmington, as well as hosted retreats for families to meet others going through the same situations. The growth of the young nonprofit was successful from his dedication, but also because of the numerous people who helped him along the way. He depended on his partner, Xris Kessler, as a resource in graphics, marketing, filmmaking, editing, and the like. Friends, like Peter Clarkson, helped mold and shape the project, too. Clarkson specifically founded the social media campaign, “#iCARE,” to help spread the word on the nonprofit’s mission. He also volunteered at retreats and helped as an assistant to the executive director and media director.
Though Clarkson since moved on to a professional modeling career in New York and San Francisco, it has led him to his current director of talent job title for a new program called “ManServants.” ManServants will soon be known worldwide according to Clarkson. The program allows folks to hire a handsome and dapperly dressed male to help with anything from serving guests at a party to acting as a personal paparazzo. He is a James Bond-type butler, chivalrous and mannerly in all of his interactions. Because of Clarkson’s involvement in ManServants, they launched a charitable side to the business, called ManServants SERVE. In essence, it’s bringing Clarkson back full-circle to CARE.
“Each ManServant is able to choose a charity of their choice via this new program,” Clarkson tells. “SERVE gives 5 percent of the profits from individual bookings with a ManServant. Our highest earner has chosen The CARE Project.“
Clarkson will be the official guest speaker at the 2015 CARE Project Gala, which is the primary fundraiser for the nonprofit. It helps secure any where between $20,000 to $40,000 annually. This year Sexton set the goal to garner $100,000 to help with retreats and other needs.
“I started out with one retreat,” he tells of the nonprofit’s inception. “Next year, we will host six to eight in-state weekend retreats, two out-of-state weekend retreats and at least 12 day retreats in NC.”
Sexton has progressed the program to expand nationwide. He wants CARE to be multi-cultural and all-inclusive in bringing emotional support training and opportunities to families.
“The goal I always have had is to plant seeds around the world to reach as many people in need as possible,” he says. “I think we are on the right path.”
CARE already has expanded its programming, too. Tools and strategies in dealing with hard-of-hearing and deaf patients remain of utmost importance. Sexton gets help from a private foundation grant, which has allowed him to partner with Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Programs to train professionals and meet with parents.
“The CARE Project is able to continue its commitment to filming family stories as we travel out as well,” Sexton says. “In the beginning, we only provided services through NC agencies, touching the lives of dozens of families.”
Through the retreats, families have learned they’re not alone. They do seminars and various activities to help them make connections with other families. They swap stories, tips, emotions, and ideas on how to work through all the ups and downs of dealing with a child’s hearing loss. The retreats also provide opportunities for kids to feel a part of a peer group.
“Many children, for the very first time, are able to spend time with other children who wear hearing aids, [have] cochlear implants or [depend on] other technology,” Sexton says. “Once again, the kids see that they are not alone—not the only kid who has a hearing loss.”
Sexton is able to connect families on a deeper level as well. One story in particular stands out: A family didn’t realize their son was hearing impaired at birth. In fact, because of medical mishaps, the child wasn’t even diagnosed until later in life. They faced ups and downs on multiple layers, because the dad was in the military and was deployed to Iraq during the time his son wasn’t developing speech patterns. When the mom and child attended a CARE retreat, her husband couldn’t travel to it until the second day because of work.
“She was just so angry that her son’s hearing loss was not diagnosed for several years,” Sexton explains. “When he was born, he failed the newborn hearing screening but was told by the tester that the machine may be broken. This was on a military base in another country.”
Once tested again in the States, they learned of the boy’s significant hearing loss in both ears and was referred on to a major pediatric audiology clinic. The mother then found out, upon the first visit, her son needed hearing aids immediately.
“She grieved openly in the waiting room for several hours but moved forward,” Sexton reflects. “On a call home that night, she told her husband, and he hung up the phone. Turns out, he couldn’t handle the news either and needed his own time to grieve, but left his wife feeling very alone and sad.”
The CARE retreat they attended allowed them ample time and privacy to work through their heartaches together—and discuss their son’s hearing loss for the first time. It united them in their advocacy.
“They grew to be the biggest advocate for their son,” Sexton tells. “To this day, the family is very involved in the work of The CARE Project.”
The mom often travels with Sexton and speaks to groups of teachers. Again, Sexton films many of these interactions.
“It gives us a very valuable tool, in that sharing stories of others brings a great deal of comfort to new families,” he says. “It is a way to provide power to parent communication. I always depend on the agencies to identify families in need of support. Without the wonderful network of CARE’s partners, we would not be able to reach nearly as many families.”
The gala will help raise funds to help update filming equipment, plus it will cover part-time administrative help. The fifth annual event will be the largest yet, as there will be an open bar and five chef stations for folks to eat their way through, including Brasserie du Soleil, Catch, Hot Pink Cake Stand, Jackson’s Big Oak BBQ, and Pine Valley Market. A variety of passed hors d’oeuvre will come from other restaurants in the community, including Rx, Havana’s, Little Pond Catering, and others. Jack Jack 180 will provide live entertainment for dancing, and there will be a silent auction.
“We have a variety of amazing items donated by the local community,” Sexton says, including art, spa packages and gift certificates—even a Taylor Swift VIP package, which includes concert tickets to her Greensboro show on Oct. 21. There also will be a live auction, called “Fund A Family.” It will provide scholarships for families to attend a CARE retreat.
Plus, Kessler, who is an artist as well, will have an original oil on canvas called “Serpenskirt” (value $2,000) to be raffled. Only 30 tickets will be available in this special raffle, each $100.
Tickets are only $75 to the gala and can be purchased online at www.thecareproject.com.
The CARE Project Gala
Sept. 26, 6 p.m. (red carpet arrival)
Includes open bar, food, music, fun!
CFCC’s Union Station, 502 N. Front St.
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