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She knew what she wanted to be

After joining a sign-language club at school as a 9-year-old, Stafford County native knew what she wanted to do with her life

Date published: 4/23/2007
By CATHY DYSON

Brittany Allen.jpgBy the time she was 9, Brittany Allen knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.

The Stafford County native was in the third grade when she joined a sign-language club at Grafton Village Elementary School. She was so fond of Megan Clare, a deaf classmate, she wanted to be able to communicate with her.

“Megan always had a smile on her face, and she loved everybody,” Allen said. “I guess others wanted part of her love.”

Allen’s interest in sign language lasted well beyond elementary school.

Last year, she earned a degree as an American Sign Language interpreter from Northeastern University in Boston.

Allen, 22, still lives in the Massachusetts city with her husband, Matt. She’s a freelance interpreter and hopes to specialize in medical interpreting.

Allen was in Stafford recently for a funeral and visited her parents, Irving and Sandra West. She talked about the impact of the sign-language club, which was featured in a 1993 story in The Free Lance-Star.

“The whole time, growing up, I just knew I was going to be an interpreter,” she said.

Others who knew her as a child sensed the same.

“I had several friends that learned [signing] really quickly, but Brittany is the only one who kept signing and learning after she left Grafton,” said Clare, who now works as a greeter at the Central Park Wal-Mart.

Pam Hudgins was Clare’s interpreter at Grafton Village and still interprets church services for her.

She noticed the bond between Clare and Allen, as did third-grade teacher Bonnie Baker. They also noted Allen’s talent.

“She always showed such an interest and would shine whenever she would sign,” Hudgins said. “I would always catch her out of the corner of my eye. She would be miming me, and I could see her little hands behind me.”

All Stafford County high schools offer two levels of sign-language classes, and Allen took courses at Stafford High School.

When she got to Northeastern, she realized she didn’t know as much as she thought.

“It was humbling,” she said.

She studied deaf culture and the history of deaf communication. She learned about the mental process of interpreting, as well as the business aspect. She realized people use different signs for words and phrases, based on where they’re from, just as people speak English with various accents.

She quickly got over any shyness she may have felt about talking–not just with her mouth, but also with her hands and eyes.

“At the beginning, it can be awkward because you’re not used to wearing your grammar on your face,” she said.

Hudgins, who taught the Grafton Village club, always said that sign language is 70 percent facial expression and 30 percent hand gestures.

Allen had the formula down pat, even as a youngster, Hudgins said.

In a photo accompanying the 1993 story, Allen’s eyes are wide and expressive as she watches her deaf friend.

Interpreter Hudgins wasn’t surprised that Allen stuck with sign language.

“She just seemed so focused,” she said, “all the way through school.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425
Email: cdyson@freelancestar.com

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