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July 23, 2003

Language of love

From: The Porterville Recorder, CA - Jul 23, 2003

By Anita Stackhouse-Hite, The Porterville Recorder

LINDSAY - In almost every culture, the workings of an inner culture exists that strives for recognition and improvement. That is the case with a growing number of Hispanic parents of deaf and hard of hearing children in Tulare County.

Hispanics in the deaf community want to be heard. They want local expanded educational opportunities for their children, and they are learning to speak a new language as part of the plan to achieve that goal. Approximately 15 to 20 Hispanic families fill the Lindsay School District Healthy Start building at 6 p.m. on Thursdays to learn American sign language.

They are able to do so because of a grant obtained by Parenting Network in Visalia. They participate because of the love and desire to communicate, they said.

Juan Delgado is a 58-year-old grandfather. His grandson Jesse, 8, was born deaf. Delgado's explanation for learning American sign language is simple: "So I can communicate better with my grandson," he said through instructor Claudia Garcia, who acts as interpreter for almost all of the parents. "We have to look at things differently, and try to be more intelligent about how we handle them (in our own families)."

Juan and Martha Martinez feel the same way about their 11- year-old daughter, Diana.

"I want to communicate more with my daughter," Juan Martinez said. "That's very important to us. I want to be able to tell my daughter more things, and understand better the things she tells me. That's very important for the whole family."

"I am also here to learn my daughter's language," Martha Martinez said. "We love her."

Learning American sign language has helped Benito Ceballos Baca's family become more successful and to grow as a family, wife Rosa Ceballos said. Their son, Romualdo, 11, is deaf. His sister Cristian, and his aunt and uncle, Juana and Thomas Baca, attend the class too. They all want to converse like other families whose children are all hearing children.

Juana Baca said she has a day care center and she could, one day, have a child who is deaf. If she can sign with her nephew, she will be able to understand and help other children also, she said.

Another student, Brenda Cervantes, speaks English and Spanish. She is in the class because she wants to be an interpreter.

Juvenal and Rosa Lemus have even greater motivation for participating. Their son Fabian, 10, could not speak any language until he was 7-years-old. He had not been in school and did not know how to communicate with other students in a classroom, or adults.

The family had no way to communicate with him until they moved from Mexico to the United States, according to Rosie Becerra, the social worker who started the process that eventually made the class a reality. Once here, the parents were able to take their son to get the help he needed, including the services of a children's psychologist to help with behavioral problems. Three years later, the Lemus family is able to communicate with each other on a level they did not know was possible, and their son's behavior has improved dramatically.

In the eight years she has been in the Lindsay district, Becerra said she noticed a steady increase in Hispanic children wearing hearing aids or who are completely deaf. Their parents were frustrated because there was no nearby facility where they could go to be educated. There is a school for the deaf in the city of Fremont and at the Kohn School in Tulare, a regular primary education facility with a program for the deaf called Tri Pot. Lindsay needed a program.

"I saw the need and said 'how can we help?' " Becerra said. "We went to work and things started happening. Parenting Network got a grant from Prop 10 money to provide classes. The parents and their children are so happy to be able to communicate better with each other. Almost every aspect of their lives has improved. Now they can know what their children are learning in school and they are learning how to help."

Helping their children with homework is something parents of hearing children take for granted. It is something parents of deaf children long to do.

Most of the parents and their children have been shy for most of their lives, according to Becerra. Learning sign language together has made them more social and outgoing. For example, the class is scheduled to end at 7:30 p.m., but families don't go home until an hour or so later because they are bonding with each other, and they are enjoying it. The common issue of having a special needs child, and being able to talk about it together, has unified them. It has given them a sense of empowerment.

This is the second round of classes. The first class ran for eight weeks. The current class will run for four weeks, ending in early August. Parents bring their children, who are supervised in the Healthy Start office playroom by trained babysitters, while they learn a new language. They hope to get more funding to continue the program, Becerra said.

Garcia understands the hopes and dreams of each parent in attendance. Her 9-year-old son, Salvador, is deaf. He was born with nerve damage.

"We didn't know he was deaf until he was 3," Garcia said. "Because of him, I speak fluent sign language and I work at Parenting Network, so this was a perfect fit for me."

What Garcia did not count on was the empowerment she gained from learning sign language. Dealing with her son, and protecting him, has made her stronger and able to stand up for him and his rights.

"In our culture, we learn to accept what doctors, teachers and other professionals tell you. I've learned that it's my son and my choice. That is the biggest change in my life because of having a deaf son, learning sign language and knowing I have to, and I can, stand up for him."

The families all said they want a local place for secondary education for deaf students. They want a K-12 school for the deaf in Lindsay. When leaders among them broached the subject with the county office of education, they were told they could either homeschool their kids with an interpreter or send them to Fremont.

"We don't consider those options," Garcia said.

So, once a month, families who are learning American sign language as a group, meet together in Live Oak Park in Tulare. They eat good food, get to know each other better, and brainstorm about ways to be heard about the need for a comprehensive high school for those in their inner culture: The deaf and hard of hearing children among them.

The Porterville Recorder, 2003.