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July 30, 2003

No boundaries for the young adventurers in deaf camp

From: Aspen Times, CO - Jul 30, 2003

By Steve Benson
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Riding in an old school bus en route to a recent white-water rafting trip, I found myself surrounded by conversations I could not hear and a language I did not understand. Everybody was talking, but the bus was silent.

Students from the Aspen Camp School for the Deaf have at least one advantage over the hearing — they can read lips and understand American Sign Language.

On Monday, about 40 high school-aged students from the camp piled into five boats at Shoshone to run a series of rapids on the Colorado River. They were guided by Blazing Paddles Raft Trips.

I quickly learned that the inability to hear has not made these students timid or apprehensive. By the end of the day, they were fearlessly leaping from boat to boat. Apparently, water fights just weren't exciting enough.

Now in its 31st year of operation, ACSD attracts over 100 deaf and hard of hearing students between the ages of 8 and 18 every summer. Several sessions are offered throughout the summer.

In addition to white-water rafting, each camp includes backpacking, creative arts, drama, photography, horseback riding, communication skill development and computer workshops. A ski and snowboard camp is offered in the winter, and experiential education programs, retreats and sign language classes are offered for a variety of ages throughout the year.

Tim Blocker, who owns and runs the camp with his wife B.J., said the camp strives to develop self-esteem, communication and acceptance.

"A lot of times at home they're left out," he said. "But here, that's what we push — communication and acceptance — to know that there are a lot of other people like them in the same situation."

The manner in which deaf people choose to communicate varies, and that's why acceptance is so important, Blocker said.

"There is no universal language between different deaf kids," Blocker said. "Whether you write it down or read lips, we try to make them feel good about themselves."

First-year student Tom Wankum, 17, of St. Louis, is one of only a few students who reads lips and communicates orally, instead of using sign. While Wankum maintains that there is no right or wrong way to communicate, he's happy with his method.

"Signing means you have to speak using your hands, and not everyone is going to understand you," Wankum said. "Speaking means you can talk to practically anybody."

Wankum was born deaf, and his mother decided when he was a few months old that she would teach him how to speak and read lips before teaching him how to sign. It paid off for Wankum, who speaks so well it's hard to believe he's completely deaf. He said he became comfortable speaking and reading lips and never learned how to sign.

Wankum attends a public high school and is the only deaf student in his class. In St. Louis, there are no deaf schools, he said. If he hadn't learned how to speak at an early age, he would've had to attend a boarding school, something which makes him cringe. Wankum hopes to attend the University of Southern California and study engineering.

Unlike Wankum, student Rachel Miller uses sign language as her primary mode of communication. But like Wankum, she goes to a hearing high school.

"It's really hard," said Miller, who's never attended a deaf school. "I have to have a little support every once in awhile," she said through an interpreter.

Now in her fifth year at the camp, Miller obviously has a great time. No matter where I was on the river, I could hear Miller laughing.

"I love it," she said. "It's a wonderful place to go for the summer."

Daryn Taylor, 23, from Michigan, recently graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology and is an assistant at ACSD this summer. One of RIT's eight colleges is the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), which Taylor attended. Taylor uses sign language, and is currently looking for a position in business or accounting.

When asked if he felt it would be difficult to find a job because he's deaf, Taylor said no. "But I'm working with a system," he added.

In the end, it was apparent that Jim and B.J.'s mission is working as the group of teenagers was confident and accepting of each other.

"I love it, every day is beautiful," Taylor said.

Copyright Aspen Times.