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June 8, 2003

Adversity helped carve her career

From: Youngstown Vindicator, OH - Jun 8, 2003

The teacher became deaf at age 3 from an overdose of antibiotics.



YOUNGSTOWN — Both her parents had the flu and Irene Tunanidas waited on them hand and foot.

The girl decided then that she wanted to be a nurse. But a counselor told her it wasn't possible: Nurses need to hear to use stethoscopes.

Tunanidas, deaf since age 3, said it made her sad that she couldn't achieve her ambition.

But that all changed when Madonna McAndrew came along.

The educator asked Tunanidas, then a 15-year-old Woodrow Wilson High School student, to help tutor other students with hearing impairments.

And a new interest was sparked.

Decades later, Tunanidas is retiring as a Youngstown city schools teacher. With more than 30 years of educating under her belt, she can look back at memories made, laugh, smile and know she made a difference in the lives of many hearing-impaired students.

"I enjoyed helping people, giving my talents," Tunanidas said, pointing to a photo of her, as a teen-ager, working with McAndrew and several students. " ... It was rewarding to help the students."

Tunanidas and teacher Barb Kane shared stories last week at Chaney High School as they talked about Tunanidas' career in the school district.

Her education

The 1966 Wilson High graduate took education courses at Youngstown State University and earned an art degree at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a master of education in deaf education from Kent State University and a master of science in counseling at California State University.

She's earned several awards — including one this May from the Youngstown Hearing and Speech Center — and has joined various community organizations and worked as a volunteer.

"I surprised myself," she said. "When I take one step and I think I can't go on, or if it's difficult, I step back and find another way to overcome obstacles."

Tunanidas started her professional teaching career in 1970. She had asked members of the then-Trumbull County Board of Education if she could observe classes. To her surprise, a supervisor asked, "How would you like to work for me?" She began tutoring deaf high school students in the Warren district.

The Youngstown district hired her in 1972. She has taught deaf pupils in elementary schools and a junior high school. She's also taught American Sign Language to adults and to students in the city high schools.

"If I had to name the most extraordinary person I know, it would be Irene," said Dorothy DiGiacomo, who works in the district's special education office. "She has done so much with a profound disability. ... She is truly a remarkable person."

Samie Winick, a special education teacher at Paul C. Bunn Elementary School, called Tunanidas compassionate and dedicated.

"I think the students look to Irene not only as a teacher, but also as a mentor," Winick said. "She's established longtime friendships with many students. ... They really love Miss Irene."

Tunanidas said her role models are the late McAndrew, who was her first public school teacher, and Thomas Edison — whose gradually worsening hearing impairment began at age 7.

Another is the late May Vetterle. Vetterle, the first executive director of the Hearing and Speech Center, was the first to teach Tunanidas after she became deaf from an overdose of antibiotics.

"When I had doubts, she would say, 'Irene, you can do it. I have faith in you,'" Tunanidas said.

What's changed

Since 2000, Tunanidas has been spending part of each day at each city high school to teach ASL. But she misses the days when she taught deaf students through a now-defunct program in the district.

Today, hearing-impaired students are mainstreamed into classes with an interpreter or they are placed in special education classes.

"In regular education classes, teachers don't understand their social needs, academic needs. They are underestimated," Tunanidas said. "I hope their dignity will be restored. ... The program helped students."

Ten years ago, the deaf program was "like a family" with 60 students and a group of strong teachers, she said. Students made goals for their futures, and teachers worked with their families. One coach started a deaf basketball league, with cheerleaders.

"We helped students build self-esteem, to be who they want to be," Tunanidas said. She pointed to a picture showing a group of hearing-impaired high schoolers. Most went on to college.

One student earned a master's degree in accounting. Another is a teacher at the Hearing and Speech Center. Other photos are from a student's wedding, another shows one taking a Gallaudet exam.

"She was a good inspiration for them because she went through college and made it," Kane said. "In a program that doesn't have a teacher who is disabled, the kids can't see that there is a future for them."

"She loves the kids," DiGiacomo added. "That was always her No. 1 priority — her students — and I know she made a big difference in their lives."

Her background

Tunanidas said she has also enjoyed teaching hearing students, who learned much from her about the challenges faced by deaf students. One hearing student told her: "'It opened my world. They're not different from us,'" Tunanidas said.

"It was an eye-opening experience for them," she added.

Tunanidas was mainstreamed in seventh grade. With no interpreter, she had to read lips. She said she was scared but made it through a rough start.

"I learned to deal with the pressure," she said. "And my parents spent many hours helping me with my homework."

Tunanidas is the daughter of Zenovia Tunanidas and the late George Tunanidas. He had emigrated with his family from Greece to West Virginia when he was 5. He moved to Campbell, where he was a grocer, when he married, and the couple later moved to Youngstown's North Side.

Upon her retirement, Tunanidas plans to continue teaching part time at YSU, where she started teaching ASL courses this spring.

"I wanted to move on to a new challenge," she said, "... to see how I would fare at another level, how far my abilities can go."

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