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October 31, 2003

Silent world no barrier to school board candidate

From: Willimantic Chronicle, CT - Oct 31, 2003

Terese Karmel - Chronicle Features Editor

This is a silent home.

Not the ghostly silence of a haunted house. Nor the silence of rage or defeat.

It is the silence of a household where the adults, Laurie and Ron Meotti, are deaf and although their children, Melissa, 10, and Morgan, 9, have their hearing and speech, most of the family business is conducted through sign language, body language and written communication. And e-mail. Thank God for e-mail. (Actually, even Morgan has some speech restrictions since he is autistic, although to listen to the little boy relate in detail the differences between a frog and a toad, you have to wonder about the condition.)

Communication is particularly important to Laurie Meotti; she must reach far beyond the walls of her neat home on Basket Shop Road on the eastern fringe of Hebron to convince the voters of her town that she is a sound candidate for the Board of Education.

She doesn't need to worry about losing: She is one of four Democratic candidates running unopposed; however, her enthusiasm and spirit have not been tempered by the lack of opposition, opposition she would have welcomed. Between printed literature, large signs (at the town dump every Saturday) and a party-supported translator who accompanies her to candidate events, Laurie Meotti is getting her words out.

In fact, she's not nuts about being designated the deaf or handicapped candidate; she's more interested in the issues which of course are important. But when she asks that this be the focus of this column, the answer is "no."

"You're the one who is unique. You're doing something courageous," she is told. And she nods in understanding and assent.

But to mention her major issues is only fair: Concern about overcrowding in the schools, maintaining quality education and especially advocating for students with special needs, a situation she found herself in from the age of 7 when she almost died of spinal meningitis. The disease left her deaf and without the ability to continue playing the piano she had grown to love. Through special education services in the school system of her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., she got through school fine and in 1984 graduated in English from Gallaudet College, a university for deaf students in Washington, D.C. It was there she met her husband Ron, who works in the Glastonbury post office. (The two have just legally separated but Ron is still in the Hebron home until he moves into his own home.)

Although she was shocked at being thrust into a soundless world, Laurie Meotti never felt sorry for herself. "I kept hoping I would get my hearing back but when that didn't happen, I changed goals. I could no longer focus on music so I focused on teaching the deaf" which she has done as a teacher's aide at the American School for the Deaf and in other capacities.

The Meotti family is blessed with the presence of Melissa, who started learning sign language when she was 9 months old, long before she spoke. "My mother would take a piece of candy, then show me the sign for 'candy,' and I'd learn 'candy.'" Translators, at about $30 an hour an town and the school board's expense, will do the work at public meetings which Laurie attends.

A mature girl, a straight A student at Hebron Elementary School and Laurie Meotti's right hand and left hand, Melissa is sitting on the coach between her mother and me on a chilly fall night, relaying questions to the 43-year-old woman through rapid-fire motions. She then waits for her mother to sign back before verbalizing the answer.

At the dining room table, Morgan is proudly showing his father the drawings that he has been bent studiously over for at least a half hour. His father smiles and nods. Words aren't necessary.

Nor are they necessary at the "Meet the Candidates" night we move to later at the Hebron Town Hall for the public to get to know the Democrats. Most of those in attendance know each other since they are party members or candidates, themselves; one woman, Katrina White, is there specifically as a translator for Laurie Meotti, a courtesy the party has provided at forums like this.

Party chairman Kathy Greene said when the party began looking for candidates this past summer, she mailed post cards to all Democrats asking if they were interested. Laurie Meotti wrote back that she was and after meeting her and gauging her commitment to the town and its education system, decided Meotti would be a good candidate.

It was the first office she ever sought and, like any newcomer to what can be a jungle, she was scared. It can be even more frightening if you don't know what people are saying to or about you.

"I didn't know if people would approach me," she said through Melissa. "But a lot of people have said they're happy I'm running." She has not campaigned on her own but goes with groups of other candidates to events.

As she does a week after we meet when she accepts an invitation to a Democratic candidates' luncheon hosted by the town senior center. Here there are walkers and wheelchairs; here there are hearing aides and magnifying glasses. Here there are people for whom age has assaulted their senses and their mobility.

Here are people who say they admire Laurie Meotti's courage; who say things like they're glad she is being given a chance to run.

Katrina White is with Laurie again. The two converse quickly and later White will watch Laurie Meotti intensely as she addresses the 35 or so seniors present, speaking a split second after Meotti has signed her message. "My one goal is to support the children," she says through White. And then she confesses that running for office is a new experience and she will do the best she can. After the brief talks by candidates, seniors, who this day are most concerned with the cost of the RHAM budget, talk individually with the candidates. But Meotti remains to the side, in conversation with White.

Does she think people stayed away from her deliberately because she is deaf?

No, she responds. Probably "because I'm new ... I'm a little green."

Green? Not really.

Red, for courage, maybe. And blue and white for her decision to do the patriotic thing and work for everyone in the community whether they can hear and see or not.

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