A group of elementary school students intently watches Evan Mercer as he leads a project transforming scraps of wood into a birdhouse.
Evan is, after all, an Eagle Scout who can do all sorts of things — pitch a tent, tie square knots, and start a campfire without a single match.
But in this moment, what really has Timothy Seddon, a fourth-grader, in awe has nothing to do with what Evan can do; it’s more about what he can say.
“I look straight at him,” said Timothy, a student at Still Elementary School, which serves students who are deaf and hard of hearing. “He’s really good at talking.”
Evan, who is 16 and was born deaf, volunteers every week at the school in Powder Springs. Both of his brothers — younger brother Grant, who is 14, and older brother Kyle, who is 18, volunteer with him. Coined the “Mercer Maniacs” by the students, the trio of brothers kicks off every get-together with a secret handshake — a sideways high-five combined with two handshakes.
Evan, Grant and Kyle lead weekly projects — everything from teaching first-aid skills to playing the card game Uno and playing charades.
While the activities are fun in themselves, the Mercer brothers use the activities as a vehicle for the main goal: helping the group of boys who are deaf or hard of hearing become more comfortable using their voice to communicate.
Evan didn’t say his first word until age 3. He said his first sentence at age 7. Over time, Evan has learned to communicate with his voice. Hearing aids help him hear some sounds. And he’s also mastered lip reading, and he looks for other cues such as body language to help him communicate.
“My mother pushed me,” said Evan, a junior at Harrison High School who may sit close to the front of the class but otherwise does not require specialized instruction. “When we went to restaurants, my mother always had me order for myself. She always pushed me to be independent.”
The Mercer brothers arrive at 7 a.m. one morning a week, before school gets under way.
“I want them to think of themselves as smart, athletic, funny or kind — not just deaf. I also want them to know that it’s OK to be a little different — it just makes you stand out from the crowd,” said Kyle, who overcame speech problems as a child.
While Evan doesn’t use sign language, the program is open to all children at the school, including those who communicate primarily through sign language. Whether students use their voice or sign language or a combination of the two, school officials say the volunteer program offers many benefits, including building camaraderie and language development. (And they are hoping a local Girl Scout troop might start a similar program for girls at the school.)
“They are great role models,” said Aspen Johnson, a fifth-grade teacher at Still Elementary School. “They play games, but the kids have to use words. It’s a good opportunity for the students to use words and ask for clarification if they don’t understand something. It’s also a good chance for the boys to just hang out and socialize.”
As the recent morning activity came to a close, Timothy and about six other boys used a hammer and a drill and nailed pieces of wood together to create birdhouses. Timothy said he has a birdhouse at home, and he was excited to be setting one up at his school, too. Timothy wasn’t the only one smiling.
“I like coming here because I can identify with the kids,” Evan said. “And I want the kids to understand that deafness is not a barrier. Barriers exist only in your mind, not in your ears.”