“I used to be heavy,” she started […] It was a story not about physical weight, but of mental weight, of generational trauma, of carrying your burdens and your family’s, and of learning to let go of it.”
-An excerpt from writer Tatyana Tandanpolie, describing a “Soul Service” open mic performance organized by the Raymond Banks Foundation.
Jennifer Rae Myers learned the power of words from her father, Raymond Banks. A writer himself, Raymond raised Jennifer to value the art of communication. He took her to the library after school, encouraged her to read, and showed her through example how to advocate for historically disadvantaged people through language. In third grade, her essay on Harriet Tubman won a writing contest on American heroes, a moment she still recalls as the point in which she realized the gift her father’s encouragement had offered her.
These early experiences defined what Jennifer now calls her “master purpose.” She went on to become a Speech-Language Pathologist. While earning a PhD in Neuropsychology she conceived the Raymond Banks Foundation, also called “A Way With Words.”
“It was a way of honoring my father,” she says. “I wanted to give him his flowers while he could still smell them.”
Everything the Foundation does fosters self-expression to give underserved communities a voice to grow. This might be through poetry, creative writing, public speaking, body language, or impromptu conversation. The group hosts open mic events, writing workshops, seminars, and free mock job interviews.
“Among other things, language is a marker of recovery for people who experience trauma,” Jennifer says as she describes one of the group’s recent events: a self-TLC (truth, love & care) master class, which brought together young women to write love letters to themselves, among many other activities to encourage self-expression and affirmation.
Jennifer and her volunteers also focus on communication health, raising awareness for disorders that impact a person’s expressive communication. They recently held a virtual seminar on deaf culture & sign language basics, and have a vision for community health fairs to showcase services available to those who have a communication disorder.
The Foundation’s work was just getting started in earnest when COVID-19 hit Baltimore. In the past, her work in speech-language therapy served patients in nursing homes, many of whom have communications disorders coupled with cognitive issues. These same nursing homes became the third largest source of COVID-19 fatalities in Maryland. Families could no longer visit elderly relatives, and she knew that essential workers like her were facing real challenges.
Wearing a face mask makes a therapist’s core purpose, communication, impossible. If patients have hearing impairments, they can’t understand verbal communication without seeing the speaker’s full face. Likewise, therapists often can’t understand them given that many patients have trouble expressing themselves even without a mask. If they needed to evaluate swallowing or other issues, it wasn’t possible. And perhaps most importantly, Jennifer knew that these patients were lonely, afraid, and confused.
“They are in this facility, their families can’t visit. I knew they needed to see someone smile. A smile really goes a long way toward helping put someone at ease,” Jennifer said.
She began doing research, and found a prototype of a mask with a clear front that would allow her to work with patients safely while still being able to communicate. But both of the known makers of this style of mask either no longer accepted orders, or were collecting pre-orders with no prospective date of availability.
Jennifer decided that if she couldn’t buy the clear masks, she would make them! Jennifer partnered with the team at The Pollination Project to buy supplies to sew 100 clear masks, with a goal for making many more.
“I don’t really say ‘clear mask’… I say ‘smile mask’,” Jennifer explains.
It’s a language in and of itself, and Jennifer is fluent.
Learn more about Jennifer’s work at: raymondbanksfoundation.org