local deaf community in maine grieves the loss of their own after mass shooting

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Elizabeth Seal was at home getting her children ready for bed when she heard from a friend that there had been a shooting at Schemengees Bar & Grille in Lewiston, Maine, where both their husbands had gone Wednesday night.

She immediately texted her husband, but received no response. So she went to a neighbor’s house, where people comforted one another as they waited for more information. That was where Elizabeth Seal learned that her husband, Joshua Seal, had been killed alongside his friends in the country’s deadliest mass shooting this year.

Four of the men who were killed at the bar on Wednesday night were members of a local deaf community in Maine: Joshua Seal, William “Billy” Brackett, Steve Vozzella and Bryan MacFarlane.

“Close-knit” was a common word used by locals to describe Maine’s entire deaf community. Dr. Karen Hopkins, executive director of The Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said that many Deaf and hard-of-hearing adults and children in Maine grew up together, attending their Governor Baxter School for the Deaf on Mackworth Island and even living together in the school’s dorms.

“Our community is like a big family. We connect through a shared culture and shared language of American Sign Language,” Hopkins told HuffPost in an email interview on Saturday. “We have many gatherings and social events that bring our community together, many of which happen on Mackworth Island at the school for the Deaf, which many feel is the Deaf community’s home.”

The four deaf men were among 18 killed in total during suspected gunman Robert Card’s shooting spree, all of them from the local community, including a heroic bar manager, a bowling instructor and others. Other deaf people were injured but escaped during the shooting, according to The Washington Post. Locals have been left shaken by Wednesday’s tragedy, especially those in Maine’s small, close-knit Deaf community.

“Everyone knows somebody who was affected deeply, and we’re all here supporting each other,” Elizabeth Seal told HuffPost in a phone interview on Saturday. “It’s a beautiful connection, but it’s also a tragic connection, so beautifully tragic that we can be together and share feelings with each other and grieve [with] each other in our own language and understand each other.”

The four deaf men were killed while playing at their weekly cornhole tournament for deaf athletes at Schemengees on Wednesday.

“The community here is very tight; they do everything together,” Elizabeth Seal said. “We are all suffering together. We’re all grieving together.”

These photos provided by the Maine Department of Public Safety shows victims of the Maine Shooting, Top from left, Ronald G. Morin, Peyton Brewer-Ross, Joshua A. Seal, Bryan M. MacFarlane, Joseph Lawrence Walker, Arthur Fred Strout. Second row from left, Maxx A. Hathaway, Stephen M. Vozzella, Thomas Ryan Conrad, Michael R. Deslauiers II, Jason Adam, Tricia C. Asselin. Third Row from left, William A. Young, Aaron Young, Robert E. Violette and Lucille M. Violette, William Frank, Keith D. Macneir. (Maine Department of Public Safety via AP)

These photos provided by the Maine Department of Public Safety shows victims of the Maine Shooting, Top from left, Ronald G. Morin, Peyton Brewer-Ross, Joshua A. Seal, Bryan M. MacFarlane, Joseph Lawrence Walker, Arthur Fred Strout. Second row from left, Maxx A. Hathaway, Stephen M. Vozzella, Thomas Ryan Conrad, Michael R. Deslauiers II, Jason Adam, Tricia C. Asselin. Third Row from left, William A. Young, Aaron Young, Robert E. Violette and Lucille M. Violette, William Frank, Keith D. Macneir. (Maine Department of Public Safety via AP)
via Associated Press

In a statement posted on Facebook on Thursday, the American Deaf Cornhole offered its condolences to the victims of the shooting, and to the deaf cornhole players who lost their friends and families.

“It is a time like this that we must come together as a community and support one another,” American Deaf Cornhole wrote in the statement. “Sending our thoughts and prayers to all affected by this tragic event.”

The Lewiston cornhole group was close, Elizabeth Seal said, fondly remembering the things Joshua and his friends did outside of the game, including ATV riding, camping and other outdoor activities.

“This group of guys, you should have seen the way they pulled pranks on each other. It was just something that was amazing. You’ll never forget that,” she said.

Brackett, 48, was a FedEx package handler and active member of the Deaf community who loved to play darts, cornhole, fishing and baseball, according to a GoFundMe created on behalf of his family. He leaves behind his wife Kristina, and their 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Brackett and Joshua Seal were good friends, Elizabeth Seal said, noting that Brackett hosted a lot of events for the community with his wife.

Joshua Seal also did a lot for the Deaf community, especially for deaf children and their families statewide. He was the director of interpreting services for Pine Tree Society, a Maine-based disability organization, and in 2020, he was one of the interpreters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s daily COVID-19 briefings.

He also helped create the Pine Tree Camp for Deaf and hard-of-hearing children, and was involved in the outreach program and community at The Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf.

“As a Deaf father, he knew many of our students personally as they were friends with his own children. He took them under his wing and supported their inclusion in Maine’s Deaf community,” Hopkins said. “He was a wonderful role model for hearing parents that were trying to learn sign language to communicate with their own children.”

MacFarlane, 40, grew up in Portland, Maine and was “well-liked” in the Deaf community, his sister Keri Brooks told the Boston Globe, adding that he would often offer to help people with yard work, moving and other tasks. According to The Times Record, he worked as a commercial truck driver and was one of the few deaf people to obtain a commercial truck-driving license. He enjoyed riding his motorcycle, camping, fishing and spending time with his Deaf friends.

“My family and Bryan were really proud of his license,” Brooks told the Globe. “He worked really hard to obtain that. Vermont Vocational Rehabilitation worked with Bryan and the training company to make sure he passed the test.”

Vozzella, 45, was remembered as a funny and kind person by his friends. He was a former student-athlete at the Beverly School for the Deaf in Massachusetts. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service and was a member of the New England Deaf Cornhole, according to The Times Record. He leaves behind his wife, who he would have celebrated their one-year anniversary with next month, and his two children.

“He has the biggest heart, he would do anything for family and friends,” Bethany Danforth, Vozzella’s sister-in-law, told the Globe.

In a statement posted on Facebook, the New England Deaf Cornhole said they will be honoring Vozzella and the other deaf victims at future tournaments.

“He will be missed on and off the courts,” the New England Deaf Cornhole said in a statement posted to Facebook on Thursday. “NEDC will not be the same without Steve Vozzella playing with us.”

Others in the Deaf community, both local and nationwide, have offered support to those impacted in Maine through organized donation drives, meal deliveries, and words of solidarity.

“Our Deaf community is like one family. The outpouring of support from the Deaf community worldwide has been amazing,” Hopkins said. “We are thankful for all those that have reached out to offer support to our community and to our school in support of these grieving families.”

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