Deaf since birth, Lea Sullivan has experienced obstacles and been deprived of privileges that most people who can hear take for granted.
Life’s difficulties haven’t stopped her, though, and Sullivan’s experiences have given her a compassion for little children.
Since 2004, Sullivan and her family have been residents of Waxahachie, where she serves as director of the First Steps program, an outreach of First Baptist Church.
A mother’s day out program, First Steps offers children ages 1 to 3 years old a curriculum that utilizes learning centers, group experiences, music class, outdoor play time and other features.
“I have a passion for this work because I love little children so much and when I see one who is having difficulties, I just tell them about my experiences and I tell them they can overcome theirs, too,” said Sullivan, the unexpected second of twin girls to be born after a difficult labor.
“After my mother had been in labor for over 18 hours, she finally gave birth to her little baby girl - but then the doctor kept on telling her to ‘push, push’, but my mother couldn’t understand why since the baby had already been born - until she realized she was having another baby girl,” Sullivan said, saying her first 24 hours were critical. Her lungs were filled with fluid and the nurses called for code blue three times during the night, because each time they thought they had lost her.
“After two weeks, they were able to take me home and it seemed that, in every way, I was a normal child,” Sullivan said, noting her mother stayed home with her and her twin sister during those early years. Eventually, her mother noticed a difference in the development of the twin girls.
“When my mother accidentally dropped a pan on the floor in the kitchen, my sister screamed out in fear, but my mother noticed that I didn’t respond,” Sullivan said. “I was 4 years old when they finally determined that I was hearing-impaired, having only about 5 percent hearing in one ear and 10 percent in the other.”
Sullivan, who was born in Beaumont, but spent her childhood growing up in the small central Texas town of Clifton, spent many of her childhood years in special speech therapy classes at Baylor University, taking private speech pathology and special reading classes.
“I never learned sign language because my mother was determined that I was going to be mainstream - she didn’t want me to be different from everybody else,” Sullivan said, saying she’s grateful also she was born a twin because her sister was always there to help her.
She said most of her classmates in school accepted her, but there were others who shied away. She recalled some of the difficulties, such as being in class in school and having to constantly look up and down and read the teacher’s lips while, at the same time, trying to take notes - while her sister could take notes while keeping her head down.
“I experienced a lot of hurt when I was young, because of having difficulties that my sister and other people didn’t have, but I just kept it bottled up,” Sullivan said. “But my experience has created this compassion in my heart, and when I see little children who have hurts, I just want to take them and hug them and tell them that they’re going to be all right.”
She met her husband, Robert Sullivan, in the single’s department when she was attending Prestonwood Baptist Church in North Dallas and it was not long until they fell in love and married. She was a special education teacher in Richardson, while he was on faculty at Dallas Baptist University, but it soon became apparent she would be unable to keep such a schedule with the couple living in Irving. Then one of her friends told her of an opening in Waxahachie at Wedgeworth Elementary, where she was hired.
Today, her husband is associate dean of the College of Humanities at Dallas Baptist University, while she is with First Steps.
The couple has two sons, Alec, 5, and Cole, 17 months old.
“One day, my boys and I were riding home and Alec asked me why I talk different,” Sullivan said, saying that she had told him a story of a little girl who couldn’t hear and how some of her schoolmates had made fun of her, which made her sad and made her cry.
“Mommy, that was you, wasn’t it?” Alec had asked, with Lea recalling how they both cried when she told him that yes, she was the little girl.
She said she relishes the opportunities she has to speak in different churches and church groups, sharing her experiences of overcoming a physical handicap.
“You know, I’m thankful that I can’t hear, because through my difficulties, God has taught me to hear with my heart,” she said.
E-mail Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org