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LIVE, LAUGH, LOVE: Coast man evolves into big part of both deaf, hearing worlds

AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD 
 Donald Sharpe laughs while showing his students different words in American Sign Language during a lesson on Saturday, September 13, 2014. Sharpe, who is deaf and has cerebral palsy, is very active in the community, from volunteering to teaching sign language.
AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD Donald Sharpe laughs while showing his students different words in American Sign Language during a lesson on Saturday, September 13, 2014. Sharpe, who is deaf and has cerebral palsy, is very active in the community, from volunteering to teaching sign language. SUN HERALD

Donald Sharpe loves to tell a story.

But it doesn't come in a way many people might know about.

Sharpe, 62, is deaf. But those who know him the best say he has not let what many would call a disability keep him down. He has a vibrant personality and his fluency and knowledge of American Sign Language has made him a pillar at the de l'Epee Deaf Center in Gulfport.

The ministry, funded by the Diocese of Biloxi, has spent more than 30 years providing services and activities for the deaf, hard of hearing and disabled on the Coast and around Mississippi.

Through Deaf Center interpreter Jill Hagler, Sharpe said his philosophy in life is live, laugh and love. But it hasn't always been that easy. Especially early in his life.

His family included six boys and one girl. He was born deaf and suffers from cerebral palsy. He wore leg braces during his early childhood because his legs were so weak. In 1975, he underwent a dangerous neck and back surgery. After the eight-hour procedure, he was struck with a high fever, lost nearly 50 pounds and spent three days in a coma. He spent a month in the hospital and in a neck brace for six months.

Sharpe graduated from the Mississippi School of the Deaf in Jackson in 1973. He was so respected by his classmates he was named Mr. MSD. One reason for that award was his strong work ethic at the school, where he helped clean dorms and performed other similar duties.

"Keeping things clean has always been a habit for me," Sharpe signed. "I have a lot of respect for people and I want that to show in everything I do. I do it for God. I think he protects me, and he has given me a big heart."

Sadly, all Sharpe has from his days at MSD are memories. Hurricane Katrina washed away his yearbooks, ribbons and other certificates of achievement. He and family members spent eight hours in the attic of his home during the storm.

"That was a bad experience," he signed. "I was so nervous and scared."

Sharpe recently added to his memories of his time at MSD. He and his brother Martin went to a reunion there in the summer. Martin Sharpe said it was a weekend he would never forget.

"It was a two-day event over the weekend, and there was a social and a dinner on the first night," Martin Sharpe said. "There was probably 250 people in the room, and I was the only hearing person in the group. You can imagine how awkward a position that would be. But his classmates were overcome with graciousness and did everything they could to make me feel like I was part of the group.

"It would be totally the opposite in some circles if the situation were reversed."

Martin Sharpe said his brother is an inspiration to his siblings.

"He's clearly moved past the issues he had early in his life," Martin Sharpe said. "I can speak for all of my brothers and sisters and say that we are so proud of him. He's completely independent (with his lifestyle). He really enjoys being involved with the deaf and his church. It's amazing the things he has done."

While living in Pine Bluff, Ark., Donald Sharpe taught ASL classes at his church and at Pine Bluff University College. His efforts were recognized by the media there, and he was named the Spirit of Arkansas Person of the Week by a local television station.

On the Coast, Donald Sharpe has served as president of the Gulfport Kiwanis Club and was treasurer of the Mississippi Association of the Deaf for four years. He also worked at Howard Memorial Hospital and Biloxi Regional Medical Center before his job was eliminated.

Martin Sharpe said he visits with his brother every "couple of weeks" but does communicate with him every day via a video relay service.

Here, a video relay call is placed via high-speed Internet through a videophone connected to a TV monitor or through a personal computer with a web camera. The deaf user sees an ASL interpreter on the monitor and signs to the interpreter, who then calls the hearing user via a standard phone line and relays the conversation between them.

"We're fortunate to have the resources to do that," Martin Sharpe said. "Everyone in our family can sign, but (Donald) leaves me in the dust."

Donald Sharpe serves on the Deaf Center's board of directors, helps with the weekly food pantry every Thursday afternoon and participates in the weekday Mass.

"He doesn't let what others would call disabilities slow him down," said Greg Crapo, Deaf Center director. "He has such a vibrant laugh. You can hear it for miles. With everything he does, he tries to put humor into it."

Story by Arthur Jaramillo

Photos and video by John Fitzhugh and Amanda McCoy

Interactive presentation by Justin Mitchell

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