Roz McKelvey with an “I Love You” American Sign Language plushie. (Photo provided by Roz McKelvey)

For the founder of Germantown Deaf Ministries (GDM), Roz McKelvey, her life’s work of welcoming people to understand the communication of deaf individuals and the importance of integrating them into spaces where their culture and language are valued will forever be important.

“The deaf is a culture; it’s not necessarily a disability; it’s just a fact of life,” McKelvey said. “When I’ve seen deaf children going into hearing homes and deaf people who didn’t want to go to church because they were supposed to just sit there and not know what’s going on, they started following me, or I went with them.”

GDM is a deaf advocacy group that has been making an impact for over 25 years and revolves around gatherings with activities that encourage sign language interaction, help deaf individuals find the right opportunities and resources, and bring people together with a sense of belonging.

“When the streets become your friend, you don’t have a family,” McKelvey said. “We’re a family; you won’t tell us that anyone’s hungry.”

McKelvey, a Mt. Airy native, has a passion that traces all the way back to her upbringing with her mother, Florence Garrett, who had the urge to ensure that deaf youth were being represented appropriately.

“[My mother] found out that [deaf youth] ran away in 1966 — it used to be punishable to sign,” McKelvey said. “She saw them running around the neighborhood. When I came downstairs, they were sitting in the kitchen.”

“She took them in the house, and then they started writing to tell her why they were walking around the neighborhood,” McKelvey added. “She then told the neighbors that we have to support them and that they need to be able to sign and stay in school.” 

After some others in her neighborhood joined the cause, their voices would eventually reach City Hall, which gave McKelvey a glimpse of what it meant to communicate with city government leaders to address certain issues. Around that time in the 60s and 70s, her mother collaborated with city officials, such as former Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo and former State Representative David Richardson, to help shed light on what accommodations and interpretation services had to be implemented in schools and spaces across the city.

Those early days helped give McKelvey a voice throughout the city that hasn’t wavered to this day, communicating with the city to advocate for accommodations in places like hospitals, courts, jails, and the police department.

“State reps, Governors, every Mayor from Frank Rizzo and on, they understand I’m going to be there,” McKelvey said. “I’m supporting and representing [the deaf], and if [government officials] want to ask them something, I bring them into the picture and say, ‘Talk to them, I’ll help y’all.”

Guiding deaf folks to be as independent as possible when put in certain positions to communicate is also essential in McKelvey’s work.

“Germantown Deaf Ministries tries to link the resources between politicians [and the deaf], ” McKelvey said. “I work on emergency preparedness [and ask them] ‘How are you going to contact the world?’ You have to be prepared and independent.”

After graduating from Germantown High School in 1973, McKelvey started working at the old Gino’s restaurant on the 7500 block of Germantown Avenue, which was across the street from the old Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (PSD). When students would come into the restaurant to order food, no other employee knew sign language, so she asked the students to teach her.

She went on to volunteer at the PSD and eventually began working at the school. After getting married and having two children of her own, she became a foster mother of 14 children with eight of them being deaf. 

McKelvey taught at the School for the Deaf for 21 years until 2009, and during her tenure in 1998, she founded the Germantown Deaf Ministries.  

The organization began with 12 members who would host meetings and discussions. The work started with each member going out to different churches in the city, such as Enon Tabernacle in Cedarbrook/Mt. Airy, Sharon Baptist Church in West Philly, and New Covenant in Mt. Airy to help deaf members feel seen.

Because of that early work, those churches “still have deaf ministries [that are] happy, independent, and functioning on their own,” according to McKelvey.

In 2016, they officially became a 501(c)3 organization.

Currently, there are 40 official members, and about a third of them are deaf. The others consist of people with deaf family and friends, people who work in a deaf school, people who are experiencing hearing loss, and people who are just curious to learn sign language. 

They hold monthly meetings for members in the community room at the ShopRite on the 3400 block of Fox Street, which is also available through Zoom. There, a variety of activities take place that encourage learning sign language interaction.

“We do socializing and games from 6 to 6:30 [p.m.], you know, fun ways to learn sign language,” McKelvey said. 

She currently works out of her home in Germantown and has open office hours for members every Wednesday. To join, a membership is $5 a month.

A large component of the group’s function is the events that they hold for members, as well as the events they travel to and establish their presence at.

Recently, they hosted their annual Tea Gathering on April 20 at the Germantown Friends School.

“For everyone at the tea, if you don’t know how to sign, you learn how to sign,” McKelvey said. “When members came to the tea, the picture of the closing circle [consisted of] deaf, hearing, Ukrainian, Korean, young, old, Jewish, etc.—We come together for peace and harmony.” 

They have also been significantly present at the annual Martin Luther King Day of Service events at Girard College, furthermore teaching sign language and serving as interpreters.

Their partnership with the Swarthmore-based Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre has also enhanced the interpretation services that they can provide, with interpreters who can volunteer or find work at events.

Wherever they go and whatever they do, teaching people how to say ‘I love you’ in sign is one of the first things they communicate.

McKelvey understands multiple languages and their corresponding sign languages, such as Spanish and Mandarin, which makes it easier for her to communicate with and assist people from different backgrounds. 

“I’ve been doing this so long [but] you always have to get better. Nobody knows everything; every day, you find out that you really don’t know anything,” McKelvey added. 

She also referenced a recent SEPTA meeting she attended that detailed certain changes, where she reminded them that when the deaf use their services, “everyone that’s deaf doesn’t speak English, nor do they lip reap English.”

McKelvey’s upbringing in Mt. Airy and her experiences with the many cultures of the city, is something she also mentioned played a big role in her diverse approach. They have a Christian foundation but welcome people from all backgrounds to join the organization, which is reflected in the group’s membership.

“It’s always been so mixed in Mt. Airy, and even when you get down to other places such as South Philly, you [may have to] know your Italian,” McKelvey said. “[And in other places] you don’t know if you’re going to have to do Korean or Cambodian, so I just like speaking everything.” 

Plans to expand Germantown Deaf Ministries are underway, as the organization aims to overcome some financial obstacles in the future.

“Our dream is to have more than 100 members—right now, with only 40 paying members, it’s really limited on what you can do,” McKelvey said. “We’re looking for a treasurer and a secretary. If you don’t have a constant secretary and a treasurer, then you can’t get your grants.”

“It would be good to have some stability—By God’s will, we’re going to keep going.”