Jeff Jardine: Boy’s knowledge of sign language helps during emergency at Ceres store

04/02/2014 3:34 PM

04/02/2014 10:26 PM

Nearly 11 months ago, Modesto resident Sonny Johnson and his wife went shopping at the Walmart in Ceres.

He went inside to pick up a few things while she waited outside.

The Johnsons, Sonny and Donna, are deaf. Sonny also is diabetic, and while in the store that day, his blood sugar fell and he collapsed. Store employees, including zone merchandising supervisor Leslie Kraft, came to his aid. But he couldn’t tell them what was wrong.

“The man had passed out,” Kraft said. When he came to, she said, “He was really weak. We couldn’t get anything (information) out of him. He tried to sign.”

So an announcement was made on the store’s speaker system, pleading for help from anyone who knew sign language.

The first responder, so to speak – or to sign – was a 10-year-old Cub Scout in uniform. No, really. What are the odds of that?

Indeed, Francisco Regua learned American Sign Language out of necessity. He needed to be able to communicate with his grandmother Christine Jackson, who is deaf and, by pure coincidence, acquainted with Donna Johnson.

“She taught me,” he said. “It was easy.”

Grandma must be a pretty good teacher.

Francisco spent that May morning at a Cub Scout event before heading to the store with his great-grandmother Diane Holdaway, who wanted to process some photos. Francisco’s sister joined them. He tried out some video games while great-grandma was at the photo counter. Then, as he roamed the aisles, he noticed the store employees attending to the obviously distressed man. That is when Francisco heard the public address announcement and went over to volunteer his services.

He used his signing skills to ascertain Johnson’s name and to help the store officials understand what the 71-year-old was experiencing.

“(Francisco) was able to help us out,” Kraft said. “He stayed the whole time and went to the ambulance with (Johnson) and when we located his wife.”

Francisco, now 11, a fifth-grader at Hughes Elementary School and a full-fledged Boy Scout, understated the importance of his actions when we chatted Tuesday.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to help someone,” he said. “They (store officials) told me to get his name, and to try to help him say what was wrong, and ask where his wife was,” Francisco said. “He said (by signing), ‘Out in the car!’ I helped him communicate.”

Johnson, through a relay operator, said the boy did much, much more. “If he wasn’t there, I’d have been rushed off to the hospital without them knowing much,” Johnson said. “I’ve been in that situation in the past with no interpreter – no one who knew sign language. I’ve had situations before where I wasn’t so lucky.”

Instead, when paramedics arrived, they better understood Johnson’s condition and his needs and could meet them more quickly. They knew before they loaded him into an ambulance exactly what caused his predicament, and began treating him for it.

Francisco’s efforts impressed everyone involved, as well as Ken Horne, a unit commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America’s Greater Yosemite Council. Horne began investigating the incident, talking with store and emergency response officials as well as the Johnsons to understand Francisco’s role in the event.

Horne compiled and submitted the information to the council, which forwarded it the National Boy Scouts of America for further review.

Consequently, Francisco will receive a lifesaving award from the national council during an event Saturday night at the SOS Club in Modesto. The councils, national and local, want to show their appreciation.

The Johnsons also were moved by the efforts of a young boy.

“Both my wife and I needed help,” Sonny Johnson said. “The fact that he was there ... we were lucky.”

And perhaps someday Francisco truly will understand the role he played, which he downplayed until others explained it to him with gratitude and his upcoming award.

“I felt proud of what I did,” he said. “I’m still learning more (about sign language).”

True to the Scouts’ motto, Francisco indeed was prepared.

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