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November 18, 2002

Meridian senior leads cheers she can't hear

From: Bellingham Herald, WA
Nov. 18, 2002

REACHING GOALS: Deaf student works her way to success in studies and sports.

John Stark, The Bellingham Herald

Last year, the cheerleading coaches at Meridian High School didn't feel comfortable letting cheerleader Jenny Shurtleff get involved in the group's more spectacular and potentially dangerous stunts. That's because Shurtleff was born deaf.

This year, senior Jenny and her sophomore sister Kimmy formed the launch pad when cheerleaders were flipped in the air to inspire Meridian fans. It was one small victory in a string of victories for Jenny.

Kimmy Shurtleff can hear and knows sign language, helping to make sure her older sister knows what's going on in practice and at football games. But Kimmy said her big sister helps her even more, picking up the group's routines quickly and helping Kimmy learn them.

"She learns real fast," Kimmy said. "She has a really great memory."

Mother Debbie Shurtleff said Jenny's memory attracted attention even when she was 3 years old.

Debbie Shurtleff had taken a sign language class through her church when she was pregnant with Jenny, because she wanted to be able to communicate with deaf members of their ward in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

She never imagined she would be using her signing skills closer to home, but when Jenny's deafness was diagnosed when she was about a year old, Debbie Shurtleff was ready.

When Jenny entered a preschool for deaf kids at age 3, the little girl already knew 500 signs, her mother said, adding that the teachers at the school were amazed.

With the help of interpreters, Jenny made her determined way through school. Becoming a cheerleader wasn't a particularly big stretch for her, since she has also played basketball, softball and soccer on her high school's teams.

Friday was Jenny's last football game as a cheerleader. She felt natural sadness at the end of a happy experience, but she also expressed a different kind of regret.

"I know that I could have done better," she said.

She hopes to continue cheerleading next year at either Utah Valley State College or Brigham Young University as she pursues a career in nursing or physical therapy. She sees herself working with teen-agers in trouble - something she said she is already doing via Internet chatrooms and newsgroups.

While computers and the Internet have provided powerful new tools to help the deaf communicate, Jenny said deafness is still isolating.

"I like my school, but it is hard to fit in because a lot of people don't know how to sign," she said, signing as her mother interpreted. "Sometimes I feel like people don't want to talk to me or something, like I feel left out."

She's excited about being a Running Start student at Whatcom Community College starting in January, partly because she's heard there are seven or eight other deaf students there. She gets especially animated as she signs her eagerness to have people like herself to hang out with.

"I don't get to talk to people with the same culture," she said.

Debbie Shurtleff said that despite the difficulties, her daughter has done much to open up lines of communication between the deaf and hearing worlds.

"Jenny has done a lot of that just by being who she is," she said. "She doesn't know how many people went and took (sign language) classes because they met her."

Copyright © 2002, The Bellingham Herald.