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March 2, 2003

Life changes for Gardiner girl

From: Central Maine Daily Sentinel, ME - 02 Mar 2003


Four-year-old Lauren Chadwick has a healthy appetite for watching high-school basketball and rough-housing with her big sister. But unlike most children her age, Lauren is still learning how to talk.

The bright-eyed, freckle-nosed little girl was diagnosed with profound hearing loss about two years ago, and underwent surgery shortly after to install a cochlear implant, which helps her hear.

Now, with the help of a recently opened New Gloucester preschool ? hear ME now ?Lauren and nine other hard-of-hearing children from Maine are learning how to listen and speak like their peers.

George Krohne, the school's director, said hear ME now aims to make up for the language development these infants, toddlers and preschoolers missed during their early years.

The goal is to prepare the students, all of whom have either cochlear implants or hearing aids, for mainstream kindergarten classes.

"These devices don't take away deafness," Krohne said. "They are ways to cope with it."

On a recent morning in Gardiner, after awakening her daughter Lauren, Suzanne Chadwick pulled back the little girl's tousled brown hair to install a tiny hearing aid.

The aid works with Lauren's cochlear implant ? a thumbnail-sized device implanted in Lauren's inner ear that electronically stimulates her hearing nerve. A barely visible wire connects the aid to a walkman-sized processor that rests in a pouch in Lauren's undershirt.

In a matter of seconds, the preschooler was dressed and bounding down the stairs to coax her 7-year-old sister Nicole into shooting some hoops in the playroom before school.

Suzanne and Robbie Chadwick decided to have their daughter undergo the seven-hour cochlear implant surgery at Boston's Children's Hospital two years ago, when they learned it would greatly increase Lauren's hearing and speaking capabilities.

Before the surgery, Lauren could only hear sounds at a 90-decible level, which is equivalent to the thunderous rumble of a jet engine. Now she can understand regular speaking voices, which tend to hover at a much lower 20 decibels

Suzanne Chadwick said once Lauren's implant was activated just before Christmas 2000, she immediately noticed improvements in her daughter's hearing. She started to respond when someone called her name, and was annoyed by the shrillness of the vacuum cleaner and the buzzer at high-school basketball games.

While the hearing came quickly, speaking has taken a little longer.

"They can't immediately talk because they don't know how," Suzanne Chadwick said.

Lauren has trouble associating spoken words with the objects or activities they represent.

But with help from classes at hear ME now, which opened in early January, Lauren is swiftly gaining those skills, Suzanne Chadwick said.

The Chadwicks are among three families who drive from Kennebec County to the school, tucked away in a renovated building at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. Other students come from places like Biddeford and South Portland.

Tuesday was a quiet day at hear ME now, with only two students attending class. Other days draw up to 10 children.

The first to arrive, Lauren dumped her coat and backpack in a cubby with her name on it and sat down to play.

Teachers Lori Levesque and Heather Peters welcomed Lauren to their colorful classroom, where nursery rhymes sing softly from a CD player and laminated tags label the sink, drawer contents and other classroom fixtures.

The emphasis here is on attaching spoken words to everything. Reading comes later, after the children learn how words sound and what they mean.

Soon, 3-year-old Tiffany Chadbourne arrived with her mom, Kelly, from their home in South Gardiner.

"Hi!" Tiffany announced, as she dropped her belongings at the cubby station and scurried over to play with Lauren.

In addition to her pixie haircut and a hot pink sweatshirt, Tiffany wears hearing aids that help her pick up regular sounds, and can hook into a special microphone that her mom or teachers use to block outside noises to help Tiffany focus on instructions.

Kelly Chadbourne said when she learned about Tiffany's hearing loss, she wasn't sure what to do. As she tries to give her daughter a variety of communication tools, including American Sign Language and spoken words, hear ME now has provided an atmosphere where Tiffany can feel confident instead of left out.

"She's like a different person now. She really is, and you can tell she's really happy," Chadbourne said.

Tiffany also has become more comfortable around hearing children, Chadbourne said.

Hear ME now's three classrooms are outfitted with acoustical carpeting on the walls and all wood furniture and toys, instead of plastic, to cut down on static that can interfere with hearing devices.

"We're cutting out all of the extraneous noise," Krohne said.

The idea is to bathe the children in language, he said.

Peters, the lead teacher, who has a master's degree in deaf education, carefully solicited words from Lauren and Tiffany while they played, learned and snacked.

Levesque, the school's early childhood education specialist, said what sets hear ME now apart from regular preschools is a more intense focus on words.

"If they want something open, even though you know they want it open, they have to say it," Levesque said.

Speech Language Pathologist Paula Pelczar also meets with the children individually a few times each week.

Both Lauren and Tiffany will one day attend regular kindergarten at their local elementary schools. It may take an extra year of preparation, but their parents feel confident hear ME now will prepare them adequately.

Robbie Chadwick, Lauren's dad, said when he has returned from frequent business trips during the weeks since school started at hear ME now, he has seen dramatic improvements in his daughter's speech.

"I come home and I'm just amazed at the new vocabulary she has," he said.

Space is available at the grant-sponsored school. All current students attend on a scholarship basis, and funding can be made available to cover any applicable tuition costs, Krohne said.

For information, call 688-4544 or send e-mail to

Danielle Gamiz ? 623-3811, Ext. 431

Copyright © 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.