By ANNA CLAIRE O’CAIN
Since the 1950s, Magnolia Speech School in Jackson has served children with hearing and speech impairments. From the school’s early days in the late Elizabeth “Libba” Matthews’ home to its current facility in Jackson and soon-to-be new home in Madison County, God has remained the foundation of the school.
Laying the foundation
One of 13 children and the daughter of a preacher, Libba and her siblings were raised to trust in God from a young age. As Libba grew older and started a family, she clung to her faith when she received some hard news: Her son Keith was deaf.
“When they found Keith to be deaf at age 6 months, the first thing they did was turn to God,” says Jackson native Shellie Matthews, Keith’s wife. “Everything Libba did — she first prayed, then would follow the leading of the Holy Spirit from day one until that school was founded. It’s remarkable as to how everything just fell into place.”
Libba was disappointed to think that Keith would grow up unable communicate verbally as other children could. She also wondered how her large family would all be able to learn sign language so they could communicate with Keith. But God had plans that were greater than what Libba imagined.
“One thing led (to another) and one of (Keith’s) pediatricians suggested, ‘Do you know that deaf children can now learn to speak and lip read?’” Shellie says. Libba had never heard that before. The pediatrician shared some more information with Libba, and she contacted the John Tracy Clinic in California, which had a home-based learning program for children from birth to age 3.
Libba completed the program with Keith and wanted him to continue learning. A good friend of the Matthews family who also had a deaf child recommended the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis.
Shellie explains, “They did not know how they were going to afford to put him there, but Libba said, ‘God provided everything.’” The Matthews family moved to St. Louis, where Keith was enrolled at the school. It was there that someone encouraged Libba to enroll in the teacher-training program, and she did. While Keith went through the preschool program, Libba went through the teacher training.
“When she came back to Jackson in 1956, she had all of her training — she was ready to work with deaf children, to teach them how to speak — but there was no place to do it,” Shellie says. “There was a group of parents in Jackson that heard about her. She started seeing a handful of children in her home.” More and more children began attending. They soon moved the classes outside of Libba’s home and began meeting in a church, then in various buildings throughout the Jackson area.
As Magnolia Speech School grew during the early ’70s, Libba and others began raising money to fund the school’s current location.
Shellie says that Libba and her husband, C.D., were sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and a lot of prayer went into the founding of the school. “Had they not prayed and left it up to God, I don’t think this school ever would have started and ever would have been a success,” she explains.
Mark Matthews, Libba’s son and Keith’s brother, shares a recollection of the early days of Magnolia Speech School:
“(Parkway Baptist Church) really was probably the first major supporter of the school,” Mark says. “They supplied the first building other than our house … The whole school was a God thing. The church prayed for Mother constantly and was very supportive of what she was doing.
“Mother always gave credit to God, no question about it.” Mark says the school is “one of those things that you don’t know how it existed — but it did, and it thrived because of His involvement.”
Jackson native Anne Sullivan Brawley, former executive director of Magnolia Speech School, worked there for over 30 years.
“There’s been a strong spiritual leading through the years with this program. It all comes from our founder Elizabeth (Libba) Matthews,” Anne says. “It was nothing that I did. Mrs. Matthews was my mentor, and as I learned as a young teacher under her the methods to help the children, I also learned how to depend on the grace of God.”
As a small nonprofit with relatively low tuition, Anne and the staff wanted any child who needed services to be able to attend the school. For many years they survived without any public funds and depended solely on fundraising and donations.
After becoming executive director, Anne saw God’s provision firsthand.
“There were many days that I would go to the mailbox the day before I was supposed to pay the staff, and I didn’t have enough money in the bank to pay the staff. … I would open the mailbox and there would be a check from a donor. It would be for almost the exact amount I needed.”
God used those moments to humble Anne and remind her that she was involved in something much greater than herself. “It was God’s will that the school served these children,” she says. “The longer I worked there, the deeper my faith became.”
Jackson native Sharon Smathers is a teacher at Magnolia Speech School and has worked there approximately 27 years.
“We have a methodology that is called the association method. (That’s) our curriculum,” Sharon says. Implementing the curriculum is like using building blocks, starting out with the basic phonics sounds then progressing to reading, writing and saying them.
“We start putting sounds together and making words. They learn how to listen for them and identify them, and they learn how to read the simple words, and they learn how to write.”
The association method is a multisensory approach and includes writing as a major component. “We try to incorporate all the senses to help the children learn,” she says.
In addition to the quality curriculum, Sharon shares another reason why she loves the school: “One thing in my opinion that makes Magnolia such a wonderful place for the children that attend is the whole child — it’s kind of a global approach.”
Students’ language acquisition and growth seem to transform them from the inside out, she says. “You can just see them coming down the hall and they’ve got their head up and their shoulders back and they’ve got a smile on their face. (You) can just see that confidence that they didn’t have maybe in the beginning.
“I literally feel like I see miracles happening all the time. A child that one day couldn’t do one task is able to do it,” she says. “I can feel the Lord’s hand in all of it. We believe in the children, and we believe that Magnolia is here for a purpose.”
New location, same foundation
Valerie Linn, originally from Kosciusko, is Magnolia Speech School’s executive director and has served there since 2014. Valerie shares about God’s provision of a new school campus, set to open this fall, as well as some special details that will make it a unique space.
“We are just so thrilled by this,” she says. “The library backs into the tree line (of the property) and the library is to be like a treehouse library. (I) know it’s going to bring a lot of joy and peace and encourage (in) children a love of reading.”
From the lighting to the types of materials used to build the walls, the new campus was strategically designed with children with hearing impairments in mind. “That is really really impressive and shows how far construction has come,” Valerie says. “We will have so many things that we haven’t been able to have (before).”
Even though a new state-of-the-art campus will soon be bustling with students and teachers, Valerie remembers the school’s spiritual roots.
“Our school has always had a strong Christian foundation from Ms. Libba,” she says. “When we were looking at the order of events for the groundbreaking, we certainly wanted someone there to lead us in prayer.”
With the staff at Magnolia attending various churches and the school receiving support from multiple churches, Valerie was unsure whom to call on. Then someone suggested, “What about our neighbors?” Valerie contacted Father Ryan Streett, rector of Holy Trinity Anglican Church (see page 16), located right next-door to the new campus, and he gladly agreed to lead the prayer.
“He was the most lovely person. His prayer was amazing. It was just perfect,” Valerie says. Another fun connection: “The woman who sold us the property … she goes to that church.”
In addition to being bathed in prayer and nestled next to a church, the new campus contains physical reminders of God’s presence. In the actual concrete foundation, there are Bibles placed throughout the school.
“We got one of Libba’s Bibles, one of Anne’s Bibles, and I (contributed) my childhood Bible that was given to me by my parents,” Valerie says. “Ms. Libba’s Bible is right as you walk into the building, then Anne’s Bible is in the executive director’s office.”
Valerie’s Bible was placed in the conference room, where many important decisions for the school will be made. “It’s symbolic of the way we make decisions there and keeping our mission and the thought of Christ’s work at our center,” she shares. “When you keep those things at your center, you’re going to make the right decisions.”
For more information about Magnolia Speech School, call 601.922.5530 or visit magnoliaspeechschool.org.