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May 17, 2003

Choir's take on anthem must be seen

From: Cleveland Plain Dealer, OH - May 17, 2003

Grant Segall Plain Dealer Reporter

Beachwood- The children squealed, scampered, flapped their arms and shook their fists, as rambunctious kids like to do on Fridays after school.

The grownups shouted and gestured, too.

"Quiet!" Tony LaPerna Jr. signaled and cried, his voice echoing in the Hilltop Elementary School gymnasium. Then he counted down on his fingers for silence: "Five, four, three, two, one."

The kids piped down, more or less. LaPerna turned on the CD player.

Then something a little different happened. As Cher's voice crooned "The Star-Spangled Banner," the youngsters performed the song in American Sign Language. They flapped their fingers to suggest banners, and swooped them upwards to suggest rockets.

Beachwood's Hilltop Elementary Sign Choir practiced yesterday to bid for a record tonight before the Indians game at Jacobs Field.

With the help of Cher's CD, the 100 fourth- and fifth-graders hope to become the biggest group of kids ever to sign America's national anthem at an outdoor arena.

The Beachwood schools draw children from many other districts who are deaf or hearing impaired. But about 90 of the choir's members hear normally. That includes fourth-grader Johannah Litwin, who joined because "I like to learn a new language."

That suited Sonny Lugo just fine.

"I like to teach kids how to sign," said the Brunswick fifth-grader, who has a hearing impairment.

"It's nice to meet hearing people," added Carl DeForest, a deaf fifth-grader from Cleveland Heights.

LaPerna has interpreted for Hilltop students and run the choir since 2000. He believes the choir's bonds last all day.

"Instead of dwelling on the disability, we try to celebrate the things we have in common," LaPerna said. "The deaf kids are no longer playing alone on the playground. The deaf kids and the hearing kids are playing tetherball together."

Last year, 40 members of the choir signed the anthem for the Indians. This year, the whole choir will perform. LaPerna plans to apply afterwards for a Guinness World Record.

LaPerna, born in Seven Hills, has gotten to know several deaf people. "I thought sign language was fascinating," he said.

He graduated from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., and has interpreted for Hillary Clinton, Whitney Houston, Maya Angelou and other notables.

He also interprets at many commencements, including tomorrow's at Case Western Reserve University.

© 2003 The Plain Dealer.