Advertisement
  1. News

Spanish speakers who are deaf find help through Pinellas library

The Deaf Literacy Center and its long-time leader have helped many move out of isolation into more productive lives.
Rosa Rodriguez and Sabila Beganovic communicate via sign language Wednesday with a group of deaf people during a Zoom video chat at the Safety Harbor library. Rodriguez runs the library system's Deaf Literacy Center, and Beganovic, who was a student in the program, is an assistant.
Rosa Rodriguez and Sabila Beganovic communicate via sign language Wednesday with a group of deaf people during a Zoom video chat at the Safety Harbor library. Rodriguez runs the library system's Deaf Literacy Center, and Beganovic, who was a student in the program, is an assistant. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Aug. 30
Updated Aug. 30

SAFETY HARBOR — Rosa Rodríguez recalls the difficulties a group of deaf people experienced in the summer of 1998 when they visited the Safety Harbor Public Library.

None of the library staff members knew American Sign Language and few people in the group understood or communicated in English. Misunderstanding escalated into tension and law enforcement eventually intervened.

“Those were other times,” said Rodríguez, 51. “Now it is totally different.”

Rodríguez, who is not hearing impaired, now works for the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative — as general coordinator of its Deaf Literacy Center.

The center is the only one of its kind in Florida, offering an array of services for people who are hearing impaired — among them, computer classes, educational workshops, book discussions, tutoring for children and adults, literacy courses for parents, tax advice and help obtaining citizenship.

Rosa Rodriguez, who leads a program unlike any in Florida for the variety of deaf services it offers, signs, “I Love You."
Rosa Rodriguez, who leads a program unlike any in Florida for the variety of deaf services it offers, signs, “I Love You." [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Inspired by experiences in her native Puerto Rico and her work with the deaf community for more than two decades, Rodríguez leads an effort that has provided help to more than 2,500 families with deaf people and another 5,000 families with members who suffer from some type of hearing impairment.

One way Rodríguez helps provide services is through partnerships with groups like the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Employment Service at the nonprofit MacDonald Training Center in Tampa.

“Rosa has a progressive mindset,” said Patti Sánchez, 57, who works as senior manager of the employment service and lost her hearing when she was 7. Sánchez knows English, Spanish and American Sign Language — commonly used by Spanish speakers.

“She definitely shows a sincere commitment to education, students, family, and community,” Sanchez said.

Rodríguez grew up in Santa Isabel, in the southern region of Puerto Rico, with her mother Zulma Quiñones and four siblings. Her grandmother, Loida Senati, instilled in her a passion for helping others in a spirit of inclusion.

“My grandmother always had the doors of her house open to give the neighbors some advice and a good cup of coffee,” Rodríguez said. “She was very generous and helped the entire community as much as she could.”

Rodríguez learned sign language in a church in the city of Cayey while studying education at the University of Puerto Rico. The church was led by David Mitchell, a pastor and missionary who lost his hearing while he was the music director at a religious congregation in Tennessee.

Mitchell became a friend and advisor to Rodriguez. He invited her to his church, where all 30 of the parishioners were deaf.

Sunday gatherings grew into workshops for surviving and thriving.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every weekday morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“In this church, they began to teach me sign language, little-by-little, step-by-step,” Rodríguez said. “And I think all of that was the beginning of something that has never ended.”

Books for hearing impaired people is one of the resources offered by the Deaf Literacy Center. So are computer classes, educational workshops, book discussions, tutoring for children and adults, literacy courses for parents, tax advice and help obtaining citizenship.
Books for hearing impaired people is one of the resources offered by the Deaf Literacy Center. So are computer classes, educational workshops, book discussions, tutoring for children and adults, literacy courses for parents, tax advice and help obtaining citizenship. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

After graduation, and with help from Mitchell, Rodríguez received a scholarship to study at the University of Tennessee. She received a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling for the deaf and later moved to Tampa to work in a deaf mental health and assistance program.

While working with this program, in the months after that 1998 encounter at the Safety Harbor library, she was hired part-time to help provide services for as many as 150 people with hearing impairments who lived in the area.

Two years later, she was named to help launch and lead the Pinellas library’s Deaf Literacy Center.

Yonn Perlaza, a 31-year-old Colombian immigrant, said the center has opened up life-changing opportunities for him. Five years ago, Perlaza was living with his parents in Tampa, isolated from the world. His father heard about the center in church from a woman with a son who also is deaf.

At that time Perlaza, didn’t know American Sign Language.

“In the DLC, I learned everything — and they helped me to build the person that I’m now,” he said.

He landed a job two years ago turning out SunPass components at the MacDonald Training Center. Now, he has a full time job at the Amazon warehouse in Seffner.

“Just because you’re deaf doesn’t mean you can’t do things, said. “MacDonald Training Center in Tampa. “The only thing you can’t do is listen.”

Sabila Beganovic was 14 when she began attending programs at the Deaf Literacy Center, with support from Rodríguez. Now 25 she works with Rodriguez as an assistant at the center and an instructor in American Sign Language.

Rodríguez helped her work beyond her hearing impairment, said Beganovic, who was born deaf.

“She has a heart for the deaf community, a world changer who has helped shape many lives, including mine,” Beganovic said.

Her work with the Deaf Literacy Center is an extension of a lifelong mission to provide deaf people all the opportunities that others enjoy, Rodríguez said.

“They are an integral part of our community.”