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December 21, 2002

Holiday songs and signs

From: Florida Times-Union, FL - Dec 21 2002

Students spread a special kind of joy

By Maggie FitzRoy
Shorelines staff writer

This holiday season, Kayla Russell is singing with her hands, painting words in the air with nimble, dancing fingers. But the Atlantic Beach teen, who is deaf, loves to sing with her voice, too.

The eighth-grader got to do both Wednesday as she and fellow students from the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind serenaded senior citizens in the St. Augustine area with Silent Night, White Christmas , Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other songs.

"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas," she sang, fingers fluttering down at the word "snow."

This was Kayla's first trip Christmas caroling with the school's speech program, which has been making the holiday visits to nursing homes and assisted living centers for a decade.

Singing with her hands is easy, says Kayla, who uses sign language to communicate. She finds singing with her voice more challenging.

Like most of the more than 600 deaf students at the St. Augustine school, Kayla receives speech therapy to learn how to pronounce words she can't hear clearly. She wears a cochlear implant, a surgically inserted device that helps her hear some sounds, and is slowly developing speech.

Kayla learned the lyrics to Christmas carols one word at a time with the help of speech teacher Nancy Pye.

"She's motivated and she really has a good attitude," said Pye, of Ponte Vedra Beach, who has worked with Kayla on her speech for two years. "She has really improved and she enjoys music."

"It's a good experience and the kids get to bring good cheer to older people who don't get to see young faces very often," said high school speech teacher Dorothy Nowlin.

At Park Place of St. Augustine, an assisted living facility, 102-year old Klazina Feige sang along with the kids and signed with them too.

Feige, who wore hearing aids in both ears, watched closely during The First Noel , sweeping her hands up and out for the word "angel."

"Beautiful, wonderful," she said. " I love it; I love children."

After their performance, the 16 singers gave out candy canes and hugs.

Barbara Compton was visiting her mother, Zelma Hetrick, at Park Place that day. Both women embraced the children circling the room.

"It was fabulous," Compton said, wiping a tear from her cheek.

"I tell you, this is something else," Hetrick told the kids. "I'm so glad you came."

Graylene Adams, 18, had never sang Christmas carols at a nursing home before.

"I feel good inside," she said. "It makes me feel good to know other people are happy."

© The Florida Times-Union