By being “intentionally different,” these Chick-fil-A Team Members made their restaurant’s welcoming environment even stronger than before.
A story of change started with a viral video.
A video featuring a man from a small Turkish community was making the rounds on social media. This young Deaf man, feeling disconnected from his peers, is shown visiting various places in his village. One day, he is surprised to encounter people who are able to communicate with him through sign language.
The village residents had committed to learn sign language to connect with the young man. Where once there was exclusion, there was now inclusion.
This video had a profound impact on Aaron Sweeney, who at the time worked at the Chick-fil-A restaurant in Strongsville, Ohio. Sweeney saw there wasn’t much different between the Turkish community and the one in Northeast Ohio that Sweeney called home. Rather than merely clicking “Like” on the video and moving on to the next post in his social media feed, he chose to act.
While Sweeney didn’t know sign language or even anyone who was Deaf, he strongly felt this was an area where he and his Chick-fil-A team could serve. He shared the story – and his vision – with the restaurant team, received an endorsement from Operator Brian Wellman and set out to make a difference.
“Aaron saw a need, and he wanted to make an impact,” said Wellman. “Our Team Members are always looking for a way to serve.”
Initially, five restaurant Team Members began attending weekly classes nearby to learn American Sign Language (ASL). The program, called Signs of Grace, seeks to build bridges between the Deaf community and others through education and understanding.
Week after week, Team Members from Chick-fil-A Strongsville showed up, eager to learn. Soon, their motivation to learn ASL extended to the rest of the restaurant team: they structured weekly ASL lessons around the Chick-fil-A menu, and Team Members learned how to take orders in sign language. A makeshift restaurant counter was set up, and Team Members took turns interacting with Deaf and hard-of-hearing customers.
“While it’s impossible to become fluent in a once-a-week class, these Team Members learned to offer a friendly welcome to customers, share basic conversation and take orders without a communication breakdown,” said Jennifer Carrick, the director of Signs of Grace Interpreters. “There was a lot of laughter in the process, and I was thrilled that Chick-fil-A recognized and valued their Deaf and hard-of-hearing customers this way.”
That turned out to be just the beginning. Not long after, Chick-fil-A Strongsville and Signs of Grace Interpreters co-sponsored their first ASL Family Night, hosted by the restaurant. The response was overwhelming – hearing parents with Deaf children were in attendance, as were Deaf parents with hearing children. In some instances, Deaf children met other Deaf children for the first time.
Though Sweeney has since moved on to another Chick-fil-A, he worked with the rest of the Strongsville team to craft a legacy that is true to the restaurant’s community outreach mission – be intentionally different in a way that positively impacts the community.
“By addressing and removing barriers to communication, it opens doors for equivalent experience, service and welcome that we want and should have,” said Carrick.
ASL Family Night is now a regular occurrence at the restaurant, one Team Member recently changed her college major to Deaf interpretive services to become a professional interpreter and Chick-fil-A Strongsville has hired a Deaf Team Member.