Sunday, August 16, 2009

A pioneer in services for the deaf — in Cambodia

A pioneer in services for the deaf — in Cambodia | | The Courier-Journal

When he was a seminarian in the late 1960s, the Rev. Charles Dittmeier figured he would specialize in counseling. But some older priests in the Archdiocese of Louisville urged him to join them in doing ministry for the deaf.

“I never met a deaf person until I was 25,” he said. But he soon embarked on a long journey in every sense of the word. He now lives in the other side of the world from his native Louisville — in Cambodia since 2000, and in Asia for a total of more than two decades.

And he's helping to pioneer services for the deaf in an impoverished, war-torn country that has had virtually no programs for the deaf — in schools or elsewhere, he said.

“What that means effectively is that no deaf adult can read or write, because there was nothing for them,” he said.

Dittmeier is working in cooperation with a New York State-based religious order, the Maryknolls, to help rectify that.

They operate schools for deaf adults in the capital, Phnom Penh, and some outlying provinces. The first step — teaching them the still-developing sign language in the native language, Khmer.

“Then we teach simple literacy, simple mathematics, and life skills,” he said. “How do you bargain in a market, hygiene and things like that.”

I met with Dittmeier, a gentle, bearded priest with an easy smile, during a visit to his native Louisville earlier this summer. He returned home to visit with family, friends, the Maryknolls in New York and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz in Louisville.

Unknown to him, I'd been following his work for years on his Web site, (Charles Dittmeier: Maryknoll/Deaf Ministry/Cambodia), where he regularly posts updates about life in Cambodia — along with photos of the ever-present motorbikes in the capital, some heavily laden with boxes and other cargo, others plowing through floodwaters or stopped at a fruit stand.

“I never know who's reading that,” Dittmeier said with surprise. He said he didn't even know the word “blog” until friends began describing his site as such.

Dittmeier's vocation began when he was a seminarian in Baltimore, close enough to Washington's Gallaudet University for the deaf that he could train with some of its staff.

Three other priests in the Archdiocese of Louisville led the local Catholic deaf ministry, but soon after Dittmeier's ordination, in 1970, they all moved away. “They said, ‘You're it.'”

For years he worked in the archdiocese's office for the deaf, ministering to local deaf Catholics while also teaching at Angela Merici High School off Dixie Highway and serving as a chaplain for the Holy Cross brothers. At a national conference on Catholic deaf ministry, he learned about missionary efforts among the deaf in Asia.

At first he put it on the back burner, but he finally realized, “There's never a good time to leave everything. I said, ‘What the heck.' So I applied.”

He was accepted, and received permission from Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly to go to a Catholic deaf program in India from 1983 to 1985.

“I just fell in love with Asia,” he said.

Dittmeier returned to Louisville for two years and then joined a program with the Maryknolls in Hong Kong, working in a well-established deaf program at Catholic schools and parishes.

After 13 years, he moved on to a very different area — Cambodia, where there are virtually no Catholics and where he helped build a program almost from scratch.

Often the parents of potential students — older teens and young adults — are wary of the opportunity.

“We have a great deal of trouble recruiting in this age group because they have such high economic value,” Dittmeier said. “Sometimes they're the main support of the family. Very often the parents are disabled from land mines, disease, old age. Life is rough in Cambodia. There's no medical care. They're living on malnutrition.”

But he also reminds parents that after they die their children will need some way of earning a living, and education would help. Those who get the message value the education highly.

On his visit here, Dittmeier brought with him a crucifix made by an artist, depicting Jesus Christ as a Cambodian on a bamboo cross with a maimed lower leg — a common tragedy in a land strewn with landmines from decades of warfare.

Add to that the chronic poverty and political corruption. I asked Dittmeier why he persists.

“It's discouraging, but we see it as planting seeds,” he said. “It's not going to stay this way forever.”

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