Twenty years ago, Michelle Christie nervously waited backstage as a group of deaf students performed a play she created for the first time.
As she listened to the applause from the audience, Christie realized she could use theater as a form of speech therapy to help other deaf students. This was the start of No Limits, a nonprofit organization that provides free after-school education for deaf children and families.
On April 7, Christie’s work with No Limits was recognized by CNN as part of their CNN Heroes program and was featured on CNN.com. The network selects people who have made a difference through their work and names them CNN Heroes.
Christie, who graduated from UCLA with a doctorate in education in 2013, has dedicated her life to helping the deaf community. She started the No Limits organization in 1996 as way to combine theater with speech therapy.
Although Christie does not personally have hearing loss, she feels like she can relate to children with hearing loss because she was extremely shy as a child, which made it difficult for her to communicate.
“I always felt pretty isolated, and so I wanted to give the kids at No Limits the confidence to speak and feel good about who they were,” Christie said.
Christie worked in the entertainment industry for 18 years before she decided to fulfill her passion for teaching. Her doctoral thesis explored the experiences of low-income Latino families of children with hearing loss.
Since she started the No Limits program, it has expanded to include one-on-one speech therapy, music classes and parental education at no cost.
Christie wrote and staged No Limits’ first play in 1996, and said sheremembers feeling extremely nervous before the curtain rose.
“I didn’t want anyone to ever feel sorry for the children,” Christie said.
The play was a success, and the children received a standing ovation, which inspired Christie to continue incorporating theater as a form of speech therapy.
Bridget Pollack, the mother of aNo Limits student named Lana, said Christie’s work has inspired her students to have confidence in their abilities.
“Michelle is right up there with the Oprahs of the world,” Bridget Pollack said. “She’s the Oprah of the hearing loss world.”
Many of the students from Christie’s first No Limits class remain active in the program, including David Hawkins, who performed in Christie’s first play when he was 11 years old.
“I said I wanted to be a pilot,” Hawkins said, speaking through a sign language interpreter. “Michelle said, ‘Sure. Go right ahead. Live that dream,’ which really motivated me.”
Twenty years later, Hawkins is working as a pilot and photographer, and he teaches at No Limits every weekend.
Christie said the students from her first production have remained involved with No Limits and often help with the theatrical performances.
Bridget Pollack was able to experience this firsthand when she brought her daughter Lana to No Limits in 2009, when Lana was almost 5 years old.
Pollack said watching Lana perform on stage is one of the best parts of coming to No Limits.
“The kids rise to the occasion and they just shine,” Pollack said. “You think back to when they weren’t speaking at all, sometimes a year ago, sometimes five years ago. And it never gets old, seeing them up there on stage.”
Christie said her goal is to increase verbal communication for all the children at No Limits, beginning with speech therapy and eventually incorporating signing.
Lana Pollack, now 12 years old, said she is inspired by how much Christie has done for the program.
“She’s dedicated her whole life to this, to help deaf children to feel like they belong,” Lana Pollack said. “I don’t know what we would do without her.”
Bridget Pollack agreed and said her family would not be the same without Christie’s work at No Limits.
“She’s our hero, whether CNN recognizes it or not,” Pollack said. “It’s amazing that the world is starting to learn what we’ve always known.”