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October 10, 2003

School fills silent void

From: Jackson Clarion Ledger, MS - Oct 10, 2003

By Ryan Clark

Five smiling faces form a half circle around their teacher, Lisa Goolsby, as they sing and laugh.

"What kind of music do you like?" she asks.

"Loud!" one answers.

"Fast and loud!" another chimes.

Three years ago, most of the children at the Magnolia Speech School wouldn't have been able to answer the question, nor describe their favorite kinds of music. They couldn't speak or hear.

The school, a non-profit organization, caters to children who are deaf and language-impaired, and helps them mainstream into regular public schools and society.

Now, in the middle of a $2 million fund-raising campaign, the school is trying to ensure that others can do the same.

"These are the kids that have been misdiagnosed, misplaced and mistreated because society judges us on how we talk," said Anne Sullivan, executive director of the school. "It's not that they aren't smart — it's just that they can't speak well."

Established in 1956, the organization has paid some expenses with the interest of a $1 million endowment raised in the mid-1980s. But deciding where the money will go is not child's play.

"We have a long-range goal of being completely self-sufficient," said Monica Daniels, development director for the school.

The Magnolia Speech School has 78 children enrolled, and according to Sullivan, about 25 percent of those are low-income families.

The school costs $18,000 a year for a child to attend, and on top of that, all children that are hearing impaired have hearing aids or cochlear implants.

But even with funding coming from just donations and tuition, the school will help parents with the cost, supplementing about $1 million annually in scholarships.

"Sometimes we get stretched a little thin," Sullivan said.

In August 2002, the school began a campaign to triple its endowment to $3 million, to provide an extra cushion for expenses. At the halfway point in August of this year, the school hoped it would be halfway to its goal.

The school has raised about $850,000 so far.

"We wish it could be more," Sullivan said. "We knew when we launched this it was going to be a challenge, the way the economy was."

Daniels said that even after this campaign, the school will be far from financial autonomy. She estimated that no less that a $10 million endowment could support the school.

For Barbara de Mora, the choice to bring her daughter, 6-year-old Isabella, to the school, was difficult. Isabella could not speak or hear, but the de Moras lived in Bucks County, Pa.

In the summer they came, traveling more than 1,100 miles and arriving in time to enroll Isabella into the school.

After two months, Isabella has looked at Barbara and said, "Mommy."

For 18-month-old Levi Williams, who is in a classroom down the hall learning to answer a telephone when it rings, the school is a family tradition. His sister, mother and father are all alumni.

In just a few months, Levi has learned to react to sounds, and to talk so much it annoys his mother.

"I came here when I was a little girl," said Mitzi Williams, Levi's mother. "When we discovered he was deaf, I was devastated. But I knew we had to bring him here. I've never felt so close to my family."

When Levi's teacher, Jennifer Riley, says "Ring, Ring," Levi looks at the phone.

He picks it up.

"Hel-lo," he says.

To help

For information on the school or to make a donation, call (601) 922-5530.

Copyright © 2003, The Clarion-Ledger.