When Emma Faye Rudkin was a teenager, she dreamed about changing the world. Those dreams roared to life when Rudkin founded the nonprofit organization Aid the Silent, becoming CEO of an effort that is now internationally known — and she started it all when she was just 18.
Aid the Silent works to help economically-disadvantaged deaf children and teens reach their full potential and live life more richly. The organization provides funds to help them receive hearing and speech resources, including hearing aids, FM systems and speech therapy, American Sign Language lessons, ministry-related activities and education enrichment programs.
“We help children from infants through high school graduates, meeting a need that is completely overlooked,” explains Rudkin, who herself has been profoundly deaf since she was three. The seed for Aid the Silent grew from a story her father shared while dealing with a family law case involving a little boy who desperately needed hearing aids and was stuck in the foster system.
“My heart just broke. It was the first time I knew there is this whole other world that has never been given the resources they need. My life looks very different because I was given those resources. Just because I was born in another family, on a different side of town, my life looks very different. So that dream started growing inside of me.”
Rudkin, 22, founded Aid the Silent and started her college career at the same time, juggling her dual roles as CEO and full-time college student while also serving as the first deaf Miss San Antonio. She is also the first to hold the title of Miss San Antonio more than once, wearing the crown in both 2015 and 2017. Add in a busy speaking schedule that often means she’s living out of a suitcase, and it’s no wonder she laughs when asked how she handles it all. “It means you won’t get any sleep, but it is possible to do it,” she says with a smile. Part of her secret is not putting pressure on herself. “I would only dedicate a certain amount of time for school. The rest of it was for other people.”
That’s how Rudkin views the world: how can she give back? It’s also part of what she encourages through Aid the Silent. “I think people who have different needs are never taught to be givers. But it’s nice to teach them that once you receive, you give back. The kids that we have invested in are now investing in other deaf kids. Now they can help love their fellow deaf students.”
That sort of connection is key to what fuels Aid the Silent: breaking down barriers and creating understanding of the deaf community. “People think that being deaf is an impairment, that something is wrong. Deaf people can do anything that a hearing person can except hear. The hearing world is the one putting the limitations on someone who is deaf,” she explains. “Someone who is deaf is just longing for the chance to show who they are.”
To help break down those barriers, Aid the Silent gives sign language lessons to whole families, not just deaf children. Ninety percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. “Children will learn sign language in school, but their parents will not learn, or they speak Spanish, so there’s even another level of separation, creating barriers in their relationship,” explains Rudkin. “When we offer sign language, the whole family attends so they’re all able to communicate.” That lack of communication creates a feeling of isolation for the deaf.
“As a deaf kid, I was constantly feeling like I wasn’t included in conversations and being on the outskirts of life, just not knowing how to belong. Even just going to school was such a struggle to understand and comprehend,” explains Rudkin.
Anxiety and depression are prevalent in the deaf community. The bubbly, outgoing, confident young woman shares her own issues to help others. “I have depression and anxiety because of the struggles I’ve had as a deaf child. I’m still healing them,” she explains, noting that another of her dreams for Aid the Silent is to fund therapy for the deaf.
Rudkin’s dreams seem endless, and she encourages others to follow theirs. “Don’t settle for the second dream. Work for your first dream. A lot of times we start listening to other voices, telling ourselves that we can’t.
“Don’t settle for what comes first or is most convenient. There’s a reason you had the first dream. That is supposed to be your purpose. It makes us most alive.”
She credits her habit of how she speaks with people for how she connects with people. “I never say ‘you’, I say ‘we.’ I’m using language that shows that we’re in this together, we need to do this, not ‘You need to do this.’ We are always as a whole pushing to become better people,” she notes. “Becoming an inviter is a habit. Instead of constantly saying, ‘Let’s meet somewhere,’ say ‘Here’s what’s happening. I want you to be a part of my life’.”
While she’s mastered juggling her various commitments, she credits a friend for teaching her to say her “best yes” to help manage things. “Instead of just saying yes to everything, I save my yes for a few really good things so I don’t burn out.”
Rudkin recently added another line to her impressive resume: college graduate. She notes that unfortunately, it’s something that only 5 percent of the deaf community accomplishes. “Only 45 percent of the deaf community graduate high school. Sign language is symbols, not words. The average reading level is third or fourth grade. We can change that,” she says with a steely determination.
With her knowledge and drive, it’s easy to understand why she was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to serve on the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities.
“My mother taught me how to advocate for myself, which has turned into advocating for other people now. She was my voice and she’s taught me how to be the voice for others. Love your neighbors and love people like you love yourself. It isn’t as complicated as we try to make it. Joy is loving other people. Joy is helping other people.”
That’s a message that everyone needs to hear.
By Dawn Robinette
Photography by David Teran