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Volunteer's visits can help ease loneliness of homebound deaf patients


Sometimes she takes a 90-year-old man out for ice cream and rides. Other times she sends cards to strangers just to let them know that homebound deaf people have someone who cares about them -- and her name is Bernice Hoeper.

Mrs. Hoeper, of Columbia, is founder of the A. Eugene Hoeper Foundation, an organization that visits and provides support for homebound deaf people. Her activities with the foundation earned her Senior Citizen of the Year honors Saturday during the Howard County Salute to Seniors in Columbia Mall.

She was chosen by a committee with members from the Commission on Aging, the County Office on Aging, and the Department of Citizen Services.

"Sometimes the hearing-impaired are there, but they're silent -- she kind of mainstreams everyone using the hearing and the nonhearing," said Barbara Harris, social worker at the Florence Bain Senior Center. "She's an inspiration. No barrier is too big for her."

The foundation, which is named for Mrs. Hoeper's husband, has about 50 volunteers who help visit and write to deaf shut-ins. Volunteers also collect goods and make crafts to sell in flea markets to raise money for the foundation.

The idea for the foundation came from Mrs. Hoeper's own experiences after her deaf husband fell ill and was homebound. She, too, is deaf, since contracting spinal meningitis at age 18.

"My husband had a heart condition and the last five months of his life we had a hospital bed in the house," she said. "On the bad days, he would become disoriented. I needed someone to be here with him when I had to go out. I needed help but it was very difficult to find."

Soon after her husband's death in October 1987, she decided to establish the foundation to provide emotional and practical support to homebound deaf people.

"The purpose of the foundation is to bring love and compassion to deaf people who are homebound. We try to help the caretakers, too," she said.

"To be deaf and to be sick is really to be so isolated. They need someone who can communicate in sign language. You [hearing people] can hear voices. You can hear the birds outside singing. For deaf people, being homebound is so much worse. I don't know that my telephone rings until my light flashes. I don't know that birds are singing until someone tells me," she said.

l Starting the foundation wasn't easy, she said.

"We started from scratch. We had all kinds of flea markets, crafts and bake sales. We also sent out letters asking for donations and we wrote grant proposals to different foundations," she said.

Soon after the foundation was incorporated, in July 1988, she applied for a grant to the Columbia Foundation. She was turned down the first year, but received a $2,000 grant from the group in 1991 and another last year.

"We just kept working from there," she said.

The foundation loans decoders and TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf) machines to people and organizations who need it and it has a newsletter, Deaf Outreach, that is published every other month.

The foundation's goal now is to help as many people as possible nationwide. There are already many homebound on the mailing list from Georgia, Wisconsin and various other parts of the country.

"We need volunteers to visit the homebound. We need caring people, people who are genuinely concerned about the homebound," she said.

The organization also trains volunteers to sign and how to deal with deaf people.

"We try to help people learn how to deal with deaf people and let them know what to expect. It isn't easy and no matter how they behave toward us, we cannot get mad," she said.

However, the main thrust of the organization doesn't get lost in all of the other activities.

"Visiting is the most important to me. That's the purpose of the foundation. Everything else we do is because of it," she said. "When we go visit people, we are helping. We don't feel like we're giving up anything. I can go wherever I want to go on a holiday. Those poor people have no choice. I remember when my husband was sick, but at least he had me," she said.

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