Meet Emma Rudkin: musician, rising sophomore at UTSA, Young Life leader, Miss San Antonio, and, since age three, deaf. After 10 years of speech therapy, she speaks perfectly and sings beautifully. Rudkin has used her disability as a platform to share her faith and reach out to deaf children across the United States.
When Emma Rudkin was three years old, she was diagnosed with profound hearing loss. She cannot hear 70-80% of the sounds that most people can hear. Rudkin has learned to embrace life’s curveballs and has accomplished several things that she was told were impossible. “It’s a story of redemption, saying that you’re not held back by your circumstances and that, no matter what people say about you, you are the one who determines if that’s really who you are,” says Rudkin.
Rudkin enrolled at the Geneva School of Boerne as a first grader. Because she was so behind on reading comprehension compared to other first graders, she barely made the cut. To help bridge that gap, Rudkin’s parents put her through speech therapy. “Because of speech therapy, I learned that if you put your mouth a certain way, it produces a different sound; if you push this much air behind it, it produces this kind of vibration. I had speech therapy for ten years, and that’s how I learned how to talk the way I do today, by watching my teacher’s mouth in the mirror and putting my hand on her mouth to fit a vibration she was making and trying to mimic that.” Throughout those 10 years, Rudkin struggled a lot with her disability. Even though she was raised in a loving Christian home and a welcoming Christian school, she felt out of place, incapable, and angry with God. At age 14, she began to search the Bible for a solution to her loneliness and confusion. But instead of finding a cookie-cutter answer, she found a reason to sing. Literally.
Rudkin remembers, “Music was something that was incredibly natural for me but at the same time very unnatural. It was something that I felt within me but it wasn’t something I could depend on to hear. I started learning first by playing piano. It was just by feeling it, watching what my teacher was doing and imitating that, watching and memorizing which notes to play. I would know what different pitches felt like because the vibrations were different for each pitch. I would just feel it in my arms, up into my chest.” Rudkin and her parents were amazed to discover her natural musical ability. Piano lessons led to voice lessons, and voice lessons led to talent shows, musical theater, and gigs around Boerne. In a short amount of time, she improved her musical skills tremendously. Rudkin traces this amazing amount of progress back to God. “I started really gaining confidence when I became a Christian at 14, and I realized that I wasn’t going to let myself be the label of the deaf girl because that’s not my name. That disability made me who I am, but it doesn’t define me anymore. So the confidence came, and I started trying out for different roles and realizing that I could sing, too.” With this gift of confidence, Rudkin took up guitar, too, and practically taught herself. She immediately began to throw guitar into the mix. She hilariously describes her first-ever guitar performance at an end-of-the-school-year barbeque as “the worst thing I’ve ever done!” She also played an entire show at Freedom Cup standing up on a broken foot. “But since then, I’ve just been throwing myself into things, even though I didn’t know all about it. And I think you just learn as you go. And that led into playing at the San Antonio Fair Grounds for the rodeo. And that was a big point in my life, realizing that I could do that… Now, music is something that I give back for fundraising or churches or worship retreats. It’s no longer my own because I know this isn’t something that I am able do without Jesus. He has given me something that’s beyond myself.”
Rudkin began to share her testimony through music performances, participation in competitive theater, involvement in Young Life, and any other venue she could find. Soon after she graduated high school, Rudkin read an alarming statistic that changed her life: 98% of the deaf have never heard about God. Rudkin was shocked that she was in the 2% of deaf people who know Christ. She discovered that the deaf are the third largest unreached group of people with the Gospel in the world. As Rudkin continued to dig up shocking statistics about the deaf, she realized, “My heart has totally shifted in what I want to do… The other major statistics say that most of the deaf will only have a third grade reading comprehension, 45% won’t graduate high school, and only 5% will go on to graduate college. So there’s this huge need… And only 300 people are working full-time on ministry to help reach them with the gospel and the good news.”
Rudkin’s idea for her non-profit organization, Aid the Silent, was born from both her empathy for the deaf community and these stunning statistics. The organization provides resources and communicational opportunities to succeed for deaf children and adults all over the US. Her mother (Kathy Rudkin of Rudkin Productions) assisted with the marketing aspect, and her father (attorney Kurt Rudkin) helped out with the legal side of things. She had a website and a dream-come-true up and running in no time. Rudkin quickly gained recognition in the deaf community, and was asked to speak at conferences, retreats, and schools within the first year of Aid the Silent. Rudkin says, “For Aid the Silent, I travel a lot to deaf schools. What I always try to do is remind the kids of all the things people told me I could never do: never being able to talk or function in the hearing world. I just tell them that whatever people say you can never do, you can go ahead and do that very thing.”
Last year, with her Aid the Silent vision underway, Rudkin took on another responsibility: Miss San Antonio. At the Miss San Antonio pageant, she won the judges over with music. “Miss San Antonio and Miss Texas definitely pushed me to the next level with performance. I didn’t even know I had that in me, and the confidence grew,” Rudkin explains. “With Miss San Antonio, I only prepared two months ahead for that. It was a pretty last minute decision. I played ‘Jackson’ and ‘Walking After Midnight’.” Rudkin admitted that she had a certain vision for her Miss Texas performance, which included a Cajon drum. So, she added in the pedal-drum to her guitar and voice performance jus a month before the pageant. She said that the performance required as much concentration and coordination as “patting your head and rubbing your stomach and then singing”. Out of the 57 girls competing, Rudkin went on to win 10th place at the Miss Texas pageant. She won several scholarship awards, including the Inspiration award, Quality of Life award, Academic “It’s very much a God thing that I didn’t go on to Miss America after Miss Texas. At first, I kind of thought, ‘Oh wow, I thought that was the plan, God’ but now I see that His plan for me here in the Boerne-San Antonio area is so much greater.”
Since the Miss Texas pageant, Rudkin has launched into Aid the Silent plans. She is in the middle of organizing a 5K to fundraise for Aid the Silent that she’ll host in November. Rudkin has promised free registration for anyone deaf or hard of hearing. Rudkin has rented all of Boerne Lake for the entire day and apparently contacted local artists like Ryan Proudfoot to play music during the event. She might even perform a few songs herself. “It’s a big fundraiser because right now we probably have 25 scholarship requests from all over the country, requesting hearing aids and FM systems. But if we started giving away hearing aids, we would have no funding,” explains Rudkin. “They’re so expensive and insurance doesn’t cover them. So we really need to start dreaming big and fundraising on a massive scale.” The registration page has been up since August 10, and the Aid the Silent Facebook and Instagram pages will continue to post updates with more information later this fall.
And Rudkin’s got more than a 5K on her plate. In the upcoming year, she is going to work part-time for Boerne Young Life, audition for America’s Got Talent, attend UTSA part-time, sing for a gala at Morgan’s Wonderland, start writing her own book, and create her first EP. Rudkin says, “That’s definitely the next big step for me as an artist. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’ll figure it out! It’ll be a very jazzy, laidback, all-acoustic EP. I am envisioning something that you can fall asleep listening to, or listen to it when you sit on your back porch drinking coffee. That’s my dream.” She says she’ll work with a recording company in 2016 to begin the first stages of recording and producing her EP.
While she juggles all of these events and opportunities in the upcoming year, Rudkin admits that she’s most worried about staying grounded, “because if Jesus isn’t at the center of everything I’m doing, then what am I doing it for? You can easily get wrapped up in doing good things and having good intentions, but unless they’re done with a sincere heart for God, it means nothing.”