In the summer of 1996, USC alumna Michelle Christie noticed that children who suffered from hearing loss had few avenues to improve their speaking abilities. To combat this issue, Christie founded No Limits for Deaf Children, a program that would help these kids develop their skills and be successful at school. Through this after-school theater program — the only one of its kind in the United States, according to Christie — the kids were able to develop their communication skills through role-playing and character development.
Building on her work helping children with hearing loss, Christie was selected as a 2017 CNN Hero earlier this month. The award aims to recognize “everyday people changing the world,” according to the CNN website.
“There are so many other people out there who are just as deserving, so it just feels very humbling,” Christie said. “I don’t know how to describe it — it’s an honor definitely. There are so many wonderful people in this world, and I think sometimes being a part of a nonprofit you can meet so many great people who are really giving back to the world.”
Christie, currently the executive director of No Limits, graduated from the John Tracy Clinic Program and later earned her a doctorate in education from the University of California, Los Angeles.
No Limits has produced over 100 shows and reached over 200,000 people total since its recent production, Silent NO MORE, which was performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
“It’s like this little dream has become bigger than I even imagined,” Christie said. “What’s wonderful is that other people are sharing it so it’s not my dream anymore. It’s a dream for all the families and all the people who are a part of it, from volunteers to our staff to our board members to our community, we are all part of the dream now.”
Silent NO MORE aims for people to understand what children with hearing loss experience by telling individual monologues about their lives. Its creators want to hear what members of the Deaf community are thinking so they can have a discussion and help No Limits make a difference in their lives.
“We have people who only believe in sign language, and some of the kids who are cast members on stage speak and sign,” Christie said. “Some might disagree with that, but we can discuss it and see what we can do to bridge the different philosophies and work together to help all children with hearing loss. It doesn’t matter if they speak or use signs or do both — we want to do whatever we can to help these children succeed in school and life.”
While Christie was working in a classroom at the John Tracy Clinic in 1996, she wanted to build the confidence of the children who she was working with by helping them overcome their shyness and develop their communication skills. Christie started the first theater program during that summer in Los Angeles. The kids performed on stage for the first time, and according to Christie, it was amazing to watch their growth.
Christie said that as a shy kid during her own childhood, she took to theater to build her confidence, literacy and public speaking skills. She said theater helped her mature and grow as a person.
“I think my background in theater was something that I always thought would be helpful as a teacher,” Christie said. “So when I was working with John, my first student, I was able to, as a speech teacher, bring in props and costumes to act things out so he could understand it, and I could see the results instantaneously.”
When Christie traveled across different cities to reach out to communities with hearing loss, she noticed that parents were struggling with the cost and of speech therapy and other after-school programs for their children. Christie wanted to help the children who came from low-income families and give them an opportunity to receive the services that they needed.
To meet this need, she founded the No Limits Educational Center in Culver City in 2002, where children go three times a week and receive individual attention in speech therapy, literacy, academic tutoring and other services. Center members nurture the kids throughout their school year and also have weekly education classes where they invite deaf role models to speak about their experiences.
“It’s just a wonderful opportunity for these families who really don’t have access to a lot of resources to be able to have their child develop skills that they need to succeed in school and in life,” Christie said. “I am very excited about what we have been able to accomplish in the sense of allowing these kids to know that they can go to college one day.”
No Limits has two other educational centers — one that opened in Las Vegas in 2013 and the other more recently in Oxnard, Calif. The organization creates a college-going culture at its educational centers and also holds graduation ceremonies for the children while involving their parents and talking to them about college. Children from No Limits have been able to enroll in colleges and graduate — and Christie said seeing their growth has been rewarding.
Different kids enroll every summer for the No Limits theater programs while the educational centers run throughout the school year. Every parent is involved in their child’s progress throughout their time at No Limits, and they also attend weekly parent classes every Saturday.
“They don’t drop off their child and leave — they actually stay and are a part of all the lessons,” Christie said. “During the weekly parent classes, we educate them about their rights, teach them advocacy skills, have them meet with other deaf adults and role models. It is a wonderful opportunity for them to know what they could do at home to work with their child.”
Clarification: A previous version referred to the Deaf community as the “deaf community.” The Deaf community signifies those who use sign language.