“I always choke up when I tell this story,” begins Deaf Community Counseling Services (DCCS) Program Director Kimberly Cohn, when asked about how she became interested in learning American Sign Language (ASL).
It all started with a piece of gum.
In her childhood, Kim fondly shares a story about how a little girl approached her father during a fire safety program at a local elementary school. Kim’s father, a career firefighter, was a Fire Inspector at the time. That little girl was deaf. She wanted a piece of gum and boldly asked for it from Kim’s father using sign language and reading lips. Kim’s father was so charmed by this little girl that every time he went back to the school for a visit, he would find her to give her gum. Kim remembers him saying, “She’s just like you, only deaf.” The friendship piqued Kim’s interest in this little girl who used her hands to communicate. Fast forward ten years, Kim is attending high school classes, and she’s approached by a student who recognized her last name and asked, “…is your dad the fireman?” Kim remembers getting chills from the happy encounter, inspiring her to take up ASL classes in high school and college.
A Bay Area native, Kim is DCCS’s new Program Director hired in September. Kim landed the job after a LinkedIn application took an unexpected turn. She didn’t find the job, Kim shares. The job found her.
“I had been at my previous community mental health agency for 14 years, in three different roles, and had been looking for a while. I saw that Felton was advertising a Division Director role through LinkedIn, so I hit the Easy Apply button. Within an hour, Felton’s recruiting manager Rachita called me back. She said, ‘I know you’re interested in the Division Director role, but would you consider looking at the job description for Deaf Community Counseling Services?’ Wow. I got my sign degree 20 years ago. Rachita found this little piece of my history. She must have dug deep into my profile and found it. I was really surprised that this job found me. And I am just honored to be here.”
Kim took her double major in Music and Theater at San Francisco State University before taking an additional two-year degree in American Sign Language at Vista College (now known as Berkeley City College). Her first career was managing a restaurant in Silicon Valley that she helped expand into a chain throughout California. At one point, Kim aspired to become an ASL interpreter for Deaf theater, but after working with a few Deaf clients, she decided to become a therapist instead. Kim completed her Masters of Psychology degree, specializing in Counseling Psychology and Drama Therapy at the California Institute of Integral Studies. As a therapist at her prior agency, she was the only clinician who knew sign language and used her ASL skills to support the few Deaf clients served there.
Kim believes that music and theater have a direct correlation to ASL because both require creative self-expression. She says, “when I learned ASL, it opened up a whole new world of Deaf culture to me through Deaf poetry and Deaf theater. While I’m a visitor in the world of ASL, I can truly embody expression through music and theater as a singer/dancer/actor. Still, I hadn’t realized the beauty and power of these arts in ASL until later, at Vista studying with Ella (Mae Lenz, esteemed local Deaf poet, author, teacher, and advocate).
Kim utilizes improvisational drama therapy in some of her clinical work, which helps her connect with Deaf clients. One of her interactive-CBT interventions is a fun and engaging game called “Wishball.” In Wishball, Kim creates an imaginary ball that she throws to a client through the zoom camera. The client acts like they are catching the ball and can throw it back with a wish attached. Through play, the game empowers the Deaf client by utilizing their inherent visual skills, creative self-expression, and personal agency. Through this collaborative therapeutic process, the client can take the lead in the game, shrinking or enlarging the ball before throwing it back. Kim says one thing she loves about her role at Felton is that she not only gets to use her clinical experience and entrepreneurial skills to help the vision and expand the DCCS services, she still gets to do some clinical work.
In her downtime, Kim loves practicing yoga and going on bike rides with her middle-school aged daughter and partner. Also a classically trained alto, she sang in the Vienna Opera House at age 15 and in the SF Symphony Chorus during MTT’s inaugural season. She’s a big music lover and confesses to being a not-so-secret DeadHead. One of Kim’s favorite memories is attending Grateful Dead shows, sitting near the section reserved for Deaf attendees, affectionally called “DeafHeads,” to watch the ASL interpreters. A DeadHead friend of Kim’s who knew that she signed had learned he was becoming a Late-Deafened Adult. Once, during a local Grateful Dead-night show, he asked if she would sign some Dead tunes on stage with the cover band. He didn’t know ASL at all but wanted to get a visual sense of the music he loved through Kim’s embodied form of musical expression in ASL.
One of her favorite quotes comes from the Grateful Dead songwriters Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia. “Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” Those are indeed inspiring words that can help us through these strange and challenging times.
About Felton Institute: Founded in 1889, Felton Institute responds to human needs by providing cutting edge, evidence-based mental health and social services that transform lives. Felton Institute is a tax-exempt organization registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit under EIN 94-1156530.
Offering more than 50 acclaimed and honored programs that address homelessness, mental health, prenatal, adolescent, adult and senior needs, Felton Institute provides services in San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo, Marin, and Monterey counties.
Felton is named for its social services pioneer and executive director Dr. Katharine “Kitty” Felton who was called the ”conscience of San Francisco” and was committed to ensuring that children and families in crisis have access to social services and resources in order to help them build upon their inherent strengths and develop self-sufficiency. www.felton.org