In the Dominican Republic, Carmen walks by the side of a dirt road on her way to school, her eyes anxiously darting left and right. Her ponytail constantly swings as she glances over her shoulder. She lives in fear that someone will grab her, take her, hurt her. She can’t hear when someone is coming, or if a threatening situation is approaching. Carmen is deaf. In this country, deaf children are sometimes abducted and abused while walking to school. The girl’s fear is relentless and she’s gripped by the feeling of isolation.

In the Dominican Republic, Nico has been told he will amount to nothing. At eight years old, behind his dark, piercing eyes he’s beginning to believe the oft-repeated refrain that he is cursed — that he has no purpose. Nico is deaf. In his country, those who are hearing-impaired are often oppressed and misunderstood. He feels worthless and hopeless.

In Colorado Springs, Ben Chittenden loves Jesus. He was born hearing, became deaf at two years old, and grew up around hearing people. He learned to read lips and spent years perfecting the ability to speak clearly. Ben wasn’t a part of the Deaf community — he saw no need for it, since he was thriving.

Content and proud of his accomplishments he headed off to college ready to start his life, but was told he couldn’t play college football because he didn’t know sign language. Ben was also told he couldn’t be a pastor — his heart’s desire at the time — because he was deaf. This smart, loving, capable man felt frustration, but was determined to achieve God’s purposes for his life, when the time was right.

In Colorado Springs, Linda Keller discovered a passion and aptitude for American Sign Language (ASL). She’s a sweet, energetic, hearing woman who loves Jesus. She worked hard to learn ASL and joyfully serves Woodmen’s Deaf community. Linda, and others who serve the Deaf community, felt called to organize Deaf missions trips. Until this summer, for one reason or another this dream was delayed. Linda was waiting patiently for God’s purposes. The time would come.

Listening with the Heart

These stories and many others will come together when Ben, Linda and eight others travel to the Dominican Republic this August to meet more than 100 kids like Nico and Carmen at the Santo Domingo School for the Deaf.

This will be a rst for Woodmen: A mission trip, with team members uent in ASL, traveling overseas speci cally to share God’s love with members of the Deaf community. The team could not be more excited; the road to this point was not easy. The journey has been one of prayer, determination and God’s faithfulness. But sometimes the most dif cult things in life are the sweetest in the end.

It all began when Ben stood up in a meeting at Woodmen and said, “I’d like to see a Deaf community group at our church, a Deaf Bible study, maybe even a Deaf mission trip. Deaf people want more ways to get involved.” By this time, Ben was a part of the Deaf community, but he didn’t become a part of it because he wanted to — God wanted him to. 

A New Identity

During college, after his football coach refused to let him play until he learned sign language, Ben’s irritation turned into determination to learn ASL so he could play. “I was mad,” he says. “I didn’t have a heart for it. I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ I only wanted to learn ASL to play football. How hard could it be?”

Turns out, it’s hard — very hard! It took many years, and a lot of perseverance, but Ben learned ASL. In the process, he met a whole new group of people — the Deaf. “One night during college I went to church and saw a woman there signing and praising God,” he says. “It really touched my heart. From that moment on my perspective on ASL changed.”

During college, Ben also attended a youth conference. He remembers sitting in the front with a friend who is a Deaf pastor. “There were two interpreters provided for us. I remember looking around at all of the people who were hearing, and I thought, ‘Where are the Deaf people? Why are they not here?” 

“God was trying to teach me. He gave me this vision of Moses, about how I’m in Moses’ shoes. Moses was born Hebrew, but grew up in Egypt. Then he found out who he really was. God told Moses to go back to his people and bring them to God. I grew up not thinking about Deaf people. I was raised in the hearing world. I realized one of my purposes in life was to share Jesus with Deaf people.”

Ben was determined to get the Deaf community more involved at Woodmen. With the support of leadership and some nancial help from Woodmen members, Ben attended a Deaf Missions training conference in Nebraska. Upon returning from the conference, he connected with Matt Storer, a high school student learning ASL, who told him about VisionTrust, a Colorado Springs based non-pro t that focuses on developing orphaned and neglected children into mature Christians equipped to live in their own culture.

As it turns out, Matt’s dad is Matthew Storer, the president of VisionTrust. “Matt and his parents invited me to a meeting at VisionTrust,” Ben recalls. “It just so happened that Nelson Pablo Paulino, the executive director of Vision Trust Dominicana, was visiting from the Dominican Republic.” Step by step, God was bringing Ben’s dream of a Deaf mission trip to life.

Helping Hands

As all of this was all happening, little did Linda, Ben’s friend of over 15 years, know that she would be receiving an invite to the same meeting, bringing her closer to her own dream of a Deaf mission trip. Years earlier, during a church service at Woodmen, Linda noticed a mother- daughter team interpreting for Deaf people. God sparked a desire in Linda to learn sign language, and she enrolled in a class. She found her passion — a passion she’s convinced is God-given. 
Over time, Linda made more and more Deaf friends at church and was asked to interpret for various activities. Then, about 12 years ago, Linda went along on a mission trip to interpret for a deaf boy from Woodmen.

“I took my oldest son with me, and we loved it so much we went again the following year. Since then it’s been on my heart to do a Deaf mission trip. For years, other folks in the Deaf community would chat about getting together a mission trip, but nothing ever clicked.” One of the barriers is that ASL is not universal. So nding a country where ASL is used is challenging.
Linda works as an interpreter in an educational setting where she also knows Matt Storer. Through a chain of events, Linda found out that VisionTrust had been in touch with Ben, and she was invited to the meeting to discuss Deaf missions.

Soon Linda, Ben and team talked with Nelson from the Dominican Republic about the partnership with VisionTrust. VisionTrust Dominicana has projects in poor, inner-city areas of Santo Domingo, the nation’s capitol, where children face drugs, gangs, and prostitution. Nelson’s team supports orphan homes and a Deaf school where “throwaway” children are introduced to the Gospel for the first time. 

When Ben and Linda heard about the Santo Domingo School for the Deaf, they sensed this could be the chance they’d been waiting for. They Skyp-ed with the school’s principal and discovered that the school uses ASL. This was extraordinary, given that the Dominican Republic is a Spanish-speaking nation!

This was the opportunity Ben and Linda were hoping for. They started making plans for a Deaf mission trip that very day.

For Such a Time as This

As Launch goes to press, Ben, Linda and a Woodmen team are heading out for the first Deaf mission trip to Santo Domingo School for the Deaf. Ten volunteers, some hearing and some deaf — all who know ASL — will facilitate workshops, Bible stories, sports activities, art projects, worship, dance and photography.

Linda is eager to encourage the children that they are loved and have purpose. “We all have something going on in our lives that’s hard, but the kids can look to the men and women of our team, and see that they can do whatever they want to do. That’s my hope for those kids.”

Through VisionTrust, many of the team members are already sponsoring boys or girls at the school. They’ll have the chance to meet their sponsored children face to face for the rst time. Since the trip was announced at Woodmen, more members of our church family have come forward to sponsor children.

The team hopes that in the future more Woodmen folks will sponsor kids or perhaps even join a mission team to the school.

A Dream Fulfilled

For Ben, this is a culmination of a dream he was told he couldn’t have — to shepherd people and preach God’s word. He will kick off the trip by giving the message at a church in Santo Domingo, where the team will get to know some of the school’s staff and refine the plan for the week.

“I realize God is using me for the Deaf world for His purposes — to share Jesus with people like me,” Ben says. “This is the first time I’m going on a mission, to share with Deaf children, and I am excited that we can clearly communicate with each other. We want to give them hope that God has a plan for them.”

Woodmen’s staff is thrilled to support the team. Emily Emerson from the church’s Access ministry says, “God has been incredibly faithful in providing this opportunity for our Deaf community to serve in the DR. We’re praying and expecting that God will use their gifts to glorify His name and give hope to students at the school. I anticipate that God will show Himself in mighty ways through our team!”

Linda says, “God teaches me something with each mission trip I take. You think you are there for what you want to do and then God hits you with a two-by-four over the heart with something special. I’ve learned to be open and flexible and know that something else is coming around the bend — I can’t wait to see what it is.”