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West Sider uses his hands to do the Lord's work



Published: Sun, September 2, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Richard Koker has interpreted speeches by Billy Graham, Al Gore, and Margaret Thatcher.

By IAN HILL

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

CANFIELD -- Richard Koker says he does double duty when the time comes to pray on Sunday.

"You pray twice; you pray with your voices, then you pray with sign language," he said.

Koker, 68, of Youngstown's West Side, was the sign language interpreter for today's church services at the Canfield Fair. He also interprets Sunday services at St. Michael Catholic Church and at Western Reserve Methodist Church, both in Canfield.

Three services were scheduled for this morning at the fair's concourse stage, including an ecumenical service officiated by Pastor Russell Libb, of Berlin Center Methodist Parsonage. Libb said that Koker does more than help people pray during the services.

"Simply having him there makes us all aware of the people that have these disabilities, these limitations," Libb said.

Learning sign language: Koker is a Catholic who is employed as a work procurement specialist at the Mahoning County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. He said he has been interpreting church services for about four years and that he began learning sign language in 1979.

At the time he was working in an ecumenical program at MRDD's Leonard Kirtz School in Austintown.

"I wanted to have some basic signs to converse [with the children]," Koker said. "I liked it so much I continued on."

Koker says took night classes in sign language at Choffin Career Center in Youngstown for six years, earning a certificate that allowed him to interpret. He began working for the MR/DD board in 1982.

During the last few years, Koker has had the opportunity to interpret speeches and presentations by nationally-known religious and political officials. He said that for five days in 1996, he served as the interpreter for Billy Graham's sermons at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium.

On the final day of the event, Koker used touch to interpret Graham's sermon for a woman who was both deaf and blind.

"That was one of my highlights," he said.

Koker said he also has interpreted speeches by former Vice President Al Gore and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

St. Michael's: In 1997, he was approached by representatives of St. Michael Catholic Church and Western Reserve Methodist Church and asked to interpret Sunday services. He currently interprets services at St. Michael on the first and third Sunday of each month and at Western Reserve Methodist on the second and fourth Sunday of each month.

Koker said his reward for interpreting comes from the looks of understanding he gets from the hearing impaired during the services.

"It's the good feeling that people can get from understanding, from the interpreter, things they wouldn't understand otherwise," he said.

hill@vindy.com




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