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January 14, 2003

Deafness increases sisterly bond

From: Merced Sun-Star, CA - 14 Jan 2003

By Kim Van Meter

DENAIR — Imagine a world without sound — a world filled with endless silence, punctuated only by the occasional, indistinct and muffled tone.

Imagine a world where the joyful sound of a baby's free-spirited giggle or the Louisiana-twang of a Cajun banjo mean nothing to you. You've never heard them.

Imagine the world of Denair resident Linda Villarreal.

Villarreal, 44, the second child in a family of a five, was diagnosed with nerve-deafness at 3 years of age. Since then she has tried to make her mark in a world all too often inadequately equipped to accommodate the needs of the deaf.

At the age of 7, she was sent away each week to the Berkeley School of the Deaf to learn how to survive in a world almost entirely dependent on whistles, buzzers, and verbal instruction.

For her younger sister, Tami Wallenburg, 41, the departure of the sister she was most close to was hard to bear. The two sisters shared a bond built upon the foundation forged from years of looking out for one another — and Wallenburg certainly looked out for her big sister.

As Wallenburg talks, her sister watches, interjecting with her hands fluidly. Wallenburg nods in acknowledgment. "She said she cried whenever she had to get on the train to go to Berkeley. It was very hard."

Since the time she can remember, Tami been there to serve as an interpreter and translator for Villarreal.

"I was the only one in the family who knew how to sign," explained Tami. "I would always interpret for her."

Though Wallenburg has never been to formal sign language class, one would never know it from watching her "talk" with her sister.

"We have always been close," said Wallenburg, adding with a laugh. "I think it started when my mom puts us together because none of my other sisters wanted to share a room with me because I snored. My mom figured Linda wouldn't mind."

Since then, the two have been as close as sisters can be. Wallenburg was there for the births of each of Villarreal's daughters, as well as, more recently, her hysterectomy.

Watching as they wheeled her sister into surgery, she recalls, "You could tell she was really scared.

Her eyes started to fill up with tears and then she flashed the 'I love you' sign. It was really overwhelming. I was scared, too."

Wallenburg stayed at night and sacrificed her lunch hour to sit by her sister's bedside.

"I was nervous about leaving her," said Villarreal. "The chart said she was deaf, but sometimes that can be overlooked. I stayed with her at night just in case she needed me."

Wallenburg helped the nursing staff communicate with her sister and even inspired a nurse at Emanuel Medical Center to enroll in sign classes.

"They were really great over at the hospital," said Wallenburg.

Despite the obvious frustrations inherent to being deaf in a hearing world, Villarreal tries to take everything in stride.

She carries pad and pen with her wherever she goes and does not let her disability get in the way of accomplishing what she wants.

She was a cheerleader for the deaf football team when she was a teenager, and two years ago she received her clerical certificate from Modesto Junior College — graduating at the top of her class with perfect attendance and various awards for excellence.

Lack of motivation is not a problem for Villarreal, but finding opportunity to use her skills has been.

"So many jobs require answering the phone," explained Wallenburg. "She wants to work, but there aren't many opportunities out there for deaf people."

Wallenburg pats Villarreal's hand and smiles. "It's hard. I don't worry about her ability to take care of herself on an day to day basis, but I do worry about her financial future."

Despite the hardships, the two sisters weather the storms together — one minute holding hands, the next "talking" with them.
At least they have each other, no matter what happens.

© 2002 Merced Sun-Star