Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech – Lessons from the 1918 Flu Pandemic applied to COVID-19

Our Reach.

Since our founding in 1867, Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech (formerly Clarke School for the Deaf) has prepared children who are deaf or hard of hearing to succeed in mainstream schools and the wider world. But soon after its 50th anniversary, Clarke faced catastrophe.

In 1918, an influenza pandemic began spreading worldwide. One-third of the global population became infected, with records indicating an astonishing 50 million deaths.

In Clarke’s 1918-1919 annual report, Alexander Graham Bell, President of the Board, wrote:

“The year past has been one of grave problems for the school, but problems we feel bravely and wisely faced. The epidemic of influenza occurred at the opening of the year and undoubtedly its influence was felt long after its disappearance.”

In that school year, the Clarke community sadly lost several members. The school also matriculated 159 students in its elementary, primary and intermediate grades, with 14 graduates venturing off to new chapters—some bound for high school and others taking teaching jobs in California, Indiana, Georgia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Canada. One graduate was even headed to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, the present-day College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Through philanthropic generosity Clarke managed to support this number of students during a crisis.

In the annual report, Bell shared that there were significant financial losses during this time, which forced the organization to consider increasing fundraising efforts. So, to support the important work of the school, the Board voted to double the endowment.

“The school,” Bell wrote, “…cannot fail to engage the continued interest and support of those who stand ready to help forward educational and philanthropic work.”

By viewing philanthropy as a priority, Clarke leadership was able to support the needs of 159 children who were deaf or hard of hearing, providing them with the education and tools they needed to thrive.

Our Work: Clarke and COVID-19

Years later, Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech faces another crisis. The COVID-19 global pandemic has caused suffering and death, mass unemployment and an economic downturn—upending lives and taking a drastic toll on vulnerable communities.

Today and every day, Clarke is stepping up for the futures of the vulnerable. Our team’s response to the crisis has been inspiring. Clarke’s services have rapidly evolved from in-home, at-school and center-based learning, to meet the critical needs of our vulnerable community from afar. Clarke teachers of the deaf, speech-language pathologists, audiologists and early intervention specialists have gone above and beyond to ensure that all Clarke children are set up for success. Because without the ability to learn listening and language skills, access speech therapy and increase self-advocacy, their futures are in jeopardy. 

We have rallied as a community by delivering hundreds of virtual and remote classrooms, coaching sessions and learning experiences to infants, preschoolers, school-age children and families along the east coast.

Withstanding this swift transformation has been exceptionally difficult, but with the support of donors, local sponsors and foundations like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, the Clarke team can continue to keep progress and learning on track for hundreds of students and families.

We now regularly see philanthropists uniting to support collective impact initiatives. Corporations are stepping up by making masks out of shopping bags, converting distilleries and perfumeries to sanitizer production facilities, increasing mobile data for free and writing large checks. All citizens, but especially our at-risk communities, rely on these initiatives for safety, connection and access to services.

Closing his letter in the 1918-1919 annual report, Alexander Graham Bell wrote, “The Corporation [Clarke] desires to urge upon friends of the school active interest and co-operation in this work.”

Your Role.

Now more than ever, Clarke relies on the support and generosity of many dedicated friends who believe in our work and mission. With this support, we can continue to provide every Clarke infant, child and school-age student with the tools and support they’ll need to sustain their listening and spoken language success through this historic event.

To learn more about how you can support Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, please visit clarkeschools.org/donate.

Cindy Goldberg is the Chief Development Officer for Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech. She’s dedicated her career to helping children and communities thrive through strategic fundraising efforts. 

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