Nateana Barnes stands side-stage with her hands aloft, wrists rotating left to right followed by rapid gesticulations. The audience follows her lead and in an instant Orret Smith's face beams with pride. He is yet to see his photo suspended on the projector screen, but from his colleagues' 'unspoken' commendation, this hearing-impaired range cook knows he has just been named Team Member of the Month at the resort's monthly Prestige Awards ceremony.
Orret is one of five hearing impaired team members employed to Sandals Negril and benefiting from the guidance of front office agent Nateana Barnes, who has become an ear and voice for persons with this condition.
The 22-year-old is quick to note that her mission is "to foster the full integration of the deaf into society through engagement, by helping to develop their cognitive skills and bridging the gap between them and the hearing, so that they will be seen as people too - not just 'deaf people'."
Barnes, a Sam Sharpe Teachers' College trained educator of the deaf, started lending her expertise to Sandals Negril when she joined the team during brief summer employment stints, starting in 2008. Now that she is a permanent member of staff, the Hanoverian says she has found her niche. "In my current capacity, I am able to make the most of my two passions. While I love customer service/guest engagement, I am happy to have been able to plant myself in an environment where I can personally help the deaf to integrate well into the workplace."
During her tenure as a teacher at the Granville Christian Centre for the Deaf, Barnes said she noticed that there were not many employment opportunities for the graduates. "Many of my students, and others like them, were left feeling that they were not fully functional members of society when, in fact, they could bring a lot of stability and growth to any organisation. Their only deficiency is hearing loss, but they are a lot like all of us - their other senses are brilliantly heightened to the point where they could even be considered gifted," she explains.
In a bid to enhance new marketable skills training for deaf team members, the hotel has worked closely with Barnes to bring Orret and others up to par with professional certification and programmes, including food handling, guest engagement, sanitation and safety. Barnes notes that having to juggle her official front office duties with voluntary deaf education can be demanding at times. However, fruit has been borne as there is growth and improvement in interaction in the workplace.
"Managers, supervisors and line team members are learning sign language through introductory classes I coordinate with the training department. The commitment of the hearing team members is commendable, and the deaf are pleased that a lot of persons are now able to comfortably have basic conversations with them through sign language," she said.
Barnes shared that one of the highlights of her interaction with the deaf community was a wedding she interpreted for a deaf couple at Sandals Whitehouse European Village and Spa. She notes that the guests are usually very impressed with the connection the Sandals team makes when they cross the language barrier. "My front office manager, Charmaine Brown, who is one of my biggest supporters, recently introduced herself to and welcomed a deaf guest in sign language, the woman and her hearing husband were very impressed - she said she felt 'human' - like she belonged," recounts Barnes.
The beautiful spirit and life-changing work of this young woman who hails from Johnson Town has earned her several accolades including the Sandals Negril Smile and Courtesy Award, grooming awards and, like Orret Smith, Team Member of the Month.
"Who I am today started developing in my place of worship, where sharing bible truths with the deaf was something we enjoyed each week. That passion grew and now I have the great honour of being with a team that shares my vision. When Orret Smith was named Team Member of the Month and we communicated that and applauded him in his language, he realised that people did not merely see him as deaf, but as a hard-working member of the resort group. That was a big accomplishment, not just for him, but for the hearing-impaired community as a whole. It was also a testimony that it does not matter what your deficiency is in life, you can always achieve the highest with the necessary support and focus on your ability, not your inability. I'm grateful I could've been part of such a moving experience."