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September 3, 2003

Deaf services feel fiscal pinch

From: Orlando Sentinel, FL - Sep 3, 2003

By Rosalind Jennings | Special to the Sentinel

Being deaf sometimes cuts a person off from much of the world.

Some people who could hear with the help of hearing aids don't have that option, because they can't afford them.

As executive director of Deaf & Hearing Services of Lake & Sumter Counties, Ron Dahly and his staff give hearing aids to the deaf and hearing-impaired of the area.

They also lend phones and other useful equipment for the deaf and hearing impaired, provide interpreters, offer job-placement help, teach sign-language and provide other services and classes.

But the staff say the nonprofit center, at 420 W. Main St., Leesburg, is in trouble -- as will be the 4,000 people they assist yearly -- if the funds to operate don't arrive.

The center lost its ongoing grant provided through Leesburg Regional Medical Center. The grant existed because of the merging of the center and Orlando Regional Medical Center. Now that they have parted ways, the grant no longer exists, Dahly said.

"The grant was $33,000 a year and paid for all our rent and a lot of our equipment and supplies," Dahly said.

The group is losing the 900 square feet of upstairs space where they teach classes, and will crowd into 600 square feet of downstairs office space by December. The downstairs space already is crowded. Dahly is looking for another classroom space.

He is one of two paid employees. The rest, such as deaf interpreters, are volunteers, Dahly said.

"We've never had a cash reserve and at times wondered how we'll make payroll, and now we're going to need to pay rent."

A Leesburg deaf couple, Gail and James Gibson, communicate through sign language. They rely heavily on the deaf interpreters the center provides. The center also helps them set up doctors' appointments, phone accounts and other necessities.

Gail Gibson, 38, is looking for work. The center provides a free interpreter who goes along with her on job interviews.

"We really want deaf people to get more jobs. If we lost the deaf center, we wouldn't get the help we need with jobs," Gail Gibson signed. "Deaf people are often afraid to look for work. If the deaf center weren't here, they wouldn't get the help or support they need."

James Gibson, 48, works in maintenance at a Leesburg Wal-Mart.

"It would hurt deaf people a lot if the center weren't here," he signed. "We would all be very depressed. We wouldn't even be able to make calls, like contacting Social Security."

Many people are hearing-impaired rather than significantly deaf. They speak English and can communicate through the help of a hearing aid. But this brings its own problems.

Medicaid stopped paying for hearing aids about two months ago, Dahly said. The minimal cost is $800 each. Costs can go up depending on how powerful the device is.

"People who are hard of hearing become shut-ins because it's embarrassing to constantly say 'What?' They think they sound stupid, and they think they are an annoyance to others," Dahly said.

The center can give out hearing aids because staffers and others rebuild them from old parts, often refitting them for about $200, Dahly said. Audiologists and doctors volunteer their services.

The center gives out about 50 hearing aids a year.

A couple of businesses are helping the center raise money. Board member John Pringle, president of Pringle Development in Leesburg, is organizing an Oct. 17 golf tournament, as well as a raffle for a sightseeing flight.

"This is a worthy cause that needs some help," Pringle said.

Pat Besch, owner of Art Alley in Leesburg's Lake Square Mall, keeps a raffle box at her shop to benefit the deaf center. A $1 donation buys a chance to win a life-size portrait by courtroom sketch artist Barbara Maxwell. Maxwell will sketch the winner or anyone the winner chooses.

"We rely 100 percent on donations and don't get government funding," Dahly said. "John, Pat, Barbara and others in the community are trying to help us."

© 2003 Orlando Sentinel Communications