He can hear, but his parents, Justine and Chris, are deaf. Thus, communication always has been the utmost challenge for the couple in raising their son, who turns 9 later this month. And as Zach, an only child, has grown increasingly independent, the Coopers realized they needed help.
“It is hard to discipline Zach sometimes; he knows I have physical limitations and I can’t make him do anything,” said Justine, 33, who was born prematurely, which caused deafness and cerebral palsy. ”So communication is important. When he was small he was often out of control, but as his sign language improves, his behavior has, too. Finger spelling is still hard for Zach, so we often misunderstand each other. It is hard when we are out as a family sometimes. Zachary wanders off and we sometimes have a hard time getting his attention. He can be stubborn and wants to be his own boss. Zach says sometimes he wishes he didn’t have deaf or disabled parents.”
So, they contacted Karen Medema of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rock, Walworth and Jefferson Counties with their rather unique request: Could the organization find a hearing volunteer who also had grown up with a deaf parent or parents?
“To their credit, they contacted me, because Zach was struggling to find his place,” said Medema, the community-based enrollment coordinator in Walworth County. “The scenario presented quite a challenge, but I already knew Rich (Hirte). And even though I knew he was busy, I reached out to him and he stepped up to the plate.”
Hirte, a pilot and Delavan resident, took on the role of Zach’s big brother more than a year ago. And Hirte’s wife, Grace, has developed excellent sign language skills and offered them at a recent visit to the Coopers’ home off Creek Road.
Hirte said his experiences growing up with deaf parents gave him a perspective that maybe other big brothers can’t draw from, although his circumstances were much different when he, his twin brother and older sister faced the same obstacles as Zach does today.
“One important thing is that this isn’t a single-parent household,” Hirte said, referring to the situation many BBBS volunteers encounter. “I mainly don’t want to overstep my bounds or interfere with family stuff, and I have to take into consideration what mom and dad are doing and treat him with the same value system, because this is all for Zach’s benefit. My biggest fear is that I’ll give him too much rope. At first glance he seems quiet and reserved, but he’s more outgoing and is a great kid.”
Zach loves to play video games and ride bikes and said he is excited about starting multiplication in math class.
Hirte said that, as one would expect, his little brother needed time to warm up to him and embrace some of the activities Hirte planned.
“He bugged me about biking for a while, and then we did it a lot until his bike was stolen,” Hirte said. “We went sledding, and he was fearful at first, but by the end he was asking to use the snowboard. Last summer we tried canoeing at a Big Brother event, and he was rather timid. But later on he said we would have to do it again. But I have to give his parents the credit for letting Zach do these things.”
Justine and Chris acknowledge their limitations and schedules always aren’t conducive to meeting Zach’s wants and needs, and despite the roadblocks they continue to face, they agree that their son is doing better since they took advantage of BBBS.
“He’s doing good,” said Chris, 42, who was born hearing but became sick as a baby, resulting in deafness. “He’s a smart boy.”
“Zachary helps mom to do cooking and chores at home,” Justine said. “He is a kind boy and wants to help other people. Zachary has learned to be patient, because so many things in our home take a long time. Zach is very special to us. We never thought we could be parents … he is so very bright, such a smart boy.”
And the Coopers, who have been married for 12 years, deserve the credit and are great examples of perseverance for their son and others.
Chris is a Sheboygan native who moved to Delavan with his family to attend the Wisconsin School for the Deaf at age 8. He was bullied a lot growing up, but he graduated from Faith Christian School in Williams Bay and has worked at Wal-Mart for 19 years.
“I find not many of my hearing friends are interested in learning sign language,” he said. “At work I’m frustrated at times when customers want something and I can’t understand them and maybe don’t have a pen and paper to write notes. Sometimes I write notes and people don’t want to write back. They think I can read lips and I can’t.”
Justine was born in Delavan, also attending WSD -- Hirte’s mother was her house parent. Justine’s family moved to Clinton, where she graduated from high school. She is a homemaker and sells Wildtree gourmet products.
“I struggle with feeling jealous at times that others can walk/run,” she admitted. “Communication can be frustrating with hearing people, but I’m lucky I can read lips pretty well.”
Regardless of their personal trials, they remain steadfast in providing for Zach, who also enjoys Cub Scouts and attends a sign language class Mondays at WSD.
“We got Zach involved (in BBBS) because Chris has so many responsibilities, caring for a disabled wife, cooking, cleaning, lawn care, bill paying, home repairs,” Justine said. “There is not a lot of time to spend father and son. When he did have time he was tired and wanted rest. We thought it would be nice for Zach to spend time with a hearing big brother, too. Zach was often stuck in the house, (so) it was nice for him to get away for a while.”
Hirte said he would continue to be a big brother as long as his little brother wants him hanging around. He and Grace raised four children.
“As he gets older and gets more phone privileges, he can call me to talk or set something up,” Hirte said. “With Chris working at nights and Justine being limited, I try to find venues and avenues for more interaction for Zach.”
And the Coopers can’t express their gratitude enough.
“Zach has developed a friendship with Richard,” Justine said. “It gives them a time for just them to spend together. Zach says they have fun. He thinks that’s the most important thing.”