An event planner who makes history happen
If you aren’t yet familiar with Sheena McFeely and The Pearls, you soon will be. But first, some background:
“I was born in Hong Kong to hearing parents. They found out that I was Deaf when I was 18 months old.
“My Mom was born and raised in Hong Kong. She was a waitress, then worked for a company as a receptionist, working job after job. Dad’s from Northern Ireland—he played professional soccer.
“Mom and I moved to Ireland for six months to see if there was something suitable for me education-wise. But there wasn’t. So we moved back to Hong Kong. Soon after, America was calling our names (specifically Los Angeles, California). We were fortunate to have family in California. Before we knew it, America pulled us in!
“I attended an oral school for the first few years, ‘til fourth grade. My parents realized it was time to move me into a program where signing was involved. I fell in love with sign language and realized how behind I was at the oral school. The program that changed my life was called TRIPOD. I stayed there ‘til the day I graduated from Burbank High School. I didn’t want to leave Southern California, so I attended CSUN.
“Through high school and CSUN, I was very involved:
1) High school: Swim and water polo team, yearbook committee, Deaf Academic Bowl Team, founder and president of ASL Club;
2) CSUN: Deaf Awareness Month Committee, Miss Deaf CSUN Pageant Assistant, did some acting there as well.
“All of that contributed my love for volunteerism, project management, and event planning. Got my B.A. in Visual Communications at CSUN.
Established my event planning business called The M Projects after graduating.
“My struggles include being discriminated against. Two big events that affected me. In the seventh grade, a hearing math teacher said to me, “What are you, stupid?”—in front of her entire class.
“In Burbank High, despite being the leading candidate for Spirit Commissioner of the Associated Student Body, McFeely was informed that she was disqualified because she was deaf and “we need someone who can use the microphone.” Stunned, McFeely took the matter to the principal—who was so utterly clueless that she didn’t even know that there were deaf students and a deaf program at BHS. The teacher who disqualified McFeely received “a slap on the wrist and a warning;” McFeely never learned what it was. But I was fortunate enough to have friends, hearing, who were fluent signers. I dated three hearing guys—all signed. That was my rule!”
“She met her husband, Manny Johnson, at CSUN—“the first Deaf guy I dated, and the last one! We both are the only Deaf ones in our families. We met, fell in love, got married [June 30, 2007], and gave birth to Shaylee, who is Deaf [on April 6, 2009].
“She is now four and is full of personality. Has a great sense of humor, loves to read, she is a sociable but gets shy in larger group of people. Our second daughter is Ivy, one year old and is a KODA. Loves people, has a great sense of humor too. She cannot stay seated in one place. Crawled at 5 months and walked at 9 months. If she can, she would grab the opportunity to climb or stand on something high above.”
“On May 22, 2006, ABC aired Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball, a one-hour special about a lavish (but private) three-day celebration that Winfrey had hosted the previous year, honoring 25 outstanding African-American women in art, entertainment, and civil rights. Among the many viewers was McFeely, who thought, “Oh, how wonderful if we can have that for Deaf women.”
“Giving birth to a Deaf daughter provided a further impetus, and so The Pearls was born. “The Pearls applauds extraordinary Deaf women in their respective fields. Deaf women who are movers and shakers, made life better for all, and turned impossibility into possibility. Be it a lawyer, writer, entrepreneur, fashion designer, and so on.”
“There are six categories: Hidden Pearl (for those making significant contributions that don’t necessarily get publicity or recognition); Businesswoman (in a variety of endeavors); First Of/Founder (for innovators); Artist; Advocate; and Black Pearl Award (for lifetime achievement).
“The first strand of The Pearls occurred in Studio City, California, on June 4, 2011.” Twenty living Deaf women (and one deceased) in a variety of fields, ranging from sports, to performing and fine arts, advocacy, business, and blogging/vlogging, were honored. It was an elegant event, but private, held at Barbara Montan’s house. “At first, many were surprised that I established a private event for The Pearls only (Oprah did that, too), but I had a very good reason for doing that. You don’t see this often—a group of awardees in an intimate setting pouring stories to each other. Some knew of each other, but never spoke (or signed) a word to each other until the event. One traveled around the world and thought she knew and met everyone until the event. They are a busy bunch so the private affair was an opportunity for them to relax and chat as if there’s no tomorrow.” (As they wouldn’t have been able to do at a big organized public bash. These can be exciting, but leave little, if any, time to talk to each other.)
“Basically, we had all the Pearls come under one roof to mingle, drink, and eat . . . hired a Deaf chef to cook them three-course meals! Deanne Bray was our lovely Mistress of Ceremonies for the evening. I had a poem called “Eyes of the Pearl” translated by her, written by the talented Jessica Baldi. We also had Deaf servers to make sure they felt right at home. That sort of stuff. Awards were given to each awardee (a pearl necklace). At the end of the day, The Pearls (the first ones especially) left the event with so many memories.”
McFeely’s stellar team also included Bernard Bragg, Fred Beam, Manny Johnson, Allisun Kale, Laura Harvey, Aline Smith, Tate Tullier, Sarah Tullier, Carlos Aponte Jr., Janette Duran, Rachel Tan, Martha Anger, Dani Duran, and Sean Forbes.
“We had sponsors and supporters alike to help out with the costs. Some gave cash donations while others donated their services (one rental company donated a set of furniture to The Pearls event and Tate Tullier donated his photography skills. We also made money from our ticket sales for the Meet ‘n Greet The Pearls event.” This was open to the public. “The private event was on Saturday evening and the community event was on Sunday afternoon, June 5. Many wanted to meet the Pearls so I set that up to make it possible.
“To this day, the event is still reeling in my head. The more I think about it, the event is truly a metaphor of a pearl. It took years of planning and determination to develop the vision in my head. As more ideas were turned into reality, layers were being built. With time, supporters and sponsors began to jump on board. There were times we’ve hit sand bottom. Manny, my husband, was my oyster throughout the journey. If not for his lending hand, I would never been daring nor strong.
“It is my ultimate goal to get Oprah involved with this somehow and somewhat —small or big. That’s the biggest challenge. I hope I can continue this for many years to come . . . it requires a lot of dedication—which is one easy task for me—and money—that’s the hard part. Everything is paid for—food, drinks, all different types of vendors, the Pearls’ flights and staying accommodations, invitations, and so on.”
“The second strand of The Pearls is to be celebrated in 2014. Twenty-one outstanding women have been chosen.” We can never have too many Pearls!