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February 3, 2004

Overcoming a world without sound

From: Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil - Feb 3, 2004

Nikki Carlson , For The Nonpareil

SHENANDOAH - Imagine a world of silence - a world where using gestures and facial expressions are the only ways to communicate; a mute realm of seclusion - the world of the deaf.

Despite all the odds, a 16-year-old boy has proven himself to be more than a label. He uses sign language to scream his independence, his manhood and his importance.

Tom Offenburger is no stranger to overcoming the bumps in the road life often inflicts.

Labeled as being borderline mentally challenged, Offenburger now attends the Model Secondary School for the Deaf at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., and has maintained a grade point average high enough to make the Gold Honor Roll.

"I'm really working hard in school," he said. "Other kids prefer to have fun, but I know it's important to finish my homework and then have fun."

In order to be on the Gold Honor Roll, a student has to have at least a 3.75 grade point average. He has a 3.8.

"I want to make my parents proud of me and show them that I'm happy," he said.

He was born deaf in Omaha, but his mother, Marti Walker, now of Shenandoah, didn't find out he was deaf until he was 10 months old.

"His biological grandmother told me that she thought he couldn't hear. I didn't think anything was wrong until I heard a seven-month-old saying 'momma, dadda,'" she said. I then thought there was something wrong because Tommy was nine months old and hadn't talked yet. He would only make vibrating sounds."

Walker took her son to a doctor in Omaha but was told there was nothing wrong with her son. But she had a gut feeling that something was wrong.

"I was a 19-year-old single mother at the time. I took Tommy to Boys Town National Research Hospital and found out that he had a profound hearing loss," she said. "He needed a lot of attention when he was younger."

Upon hearing the news, she became determined to communicate with him.

"I decided that I needed to learn his language," she said. "He grew frustrated because he had no language to communicate what he wanted."

She practiced signing the word "more" with him whenever he wanted more food. After four months of clasping her fingertips together to show him how to say more, the 16-month-old had signed his first word.

"After that, I gave him a whole plateful of food," she said.

Offenburger soon learned that, in order to communicate, he would have to use sign language. Walker attended free sign language classes to teach herself and her son how to sign.

He attended Omaha Boys Town Research Hospital. His sign language and communication began to improve, but his social life wasn't improving. After a few years of mainstreaming through public education, he began to fall behind his peers in classes. His mother then enrolled him in the Iowa School for the Deaf.

"We figured out that it wasn't working out for him socially," she said. "So we moved him to ISD."

While attending ISD, he began to make friends and was a member of the bell choir. However, he was still behind his peers. He grew frustrated, and Walker didn't know what to do.

"My dad stepped in and did the footwork, and we tried to find someone suitable to test him," she said.

Walker took her son to Minneapolis, Minn., to see a psychologist who had previously worked with deaf children. Offenburger was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and dyslexia. Walker wanted her son to be happy. Her search for his acceptance was over. She found the Model Secondary School for the Deaf at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C.

"We just got to a point where we needed to move on," she said. "We looked at possibilities for a school and we found MSSD."

After attending the school for less than a year, Offenburger has triumphed as a student. But he had to be pushed back a grade and is attending the federally-funded school as a 16-year-old freshman.

"He's had to deal with being a freshman at 16, but he's so mature that he just lets it roll," Walker said.

"I decided to give MSSD a try," Offenburger said. "I really didn't want to be a freshman again, but my grades are important to me."

Offenburger has bloomed mentally, physically, emotionally and academically while attending MSSD.

He is a cheerleader, goes to church, works for the school's newsletter, stocks shelves, enjoys cooking and is involved with an after school program where he learns how to cook and exercise.

"Life just started to become a little bit easier for him," Walker said. "He's really jumped in there and worked hard."

"I was worried about going to MSSD because I didn't want to get bad grades," Offenburger said. "I knew the academics would be really hard. I'm really happy that I'm at MSSD now because my stress has lessened."

Walker gave credit to her father, Dan Offenburger, for paying for her son's travel expenses and for finding the school for them.

With Offenburger being away from home and only able to visit a couple times a year, Walker is worried about her son's well being.

"I struggled with letting go and thought about moving there, but the expenses were too high to live there," Walker said. "It's just a way of life for deaf children. I see a degree of maturity and independence in Tommy that I don't see in hearing kids."

"He is a very special young man. He's bright, very serious, yet fun," said Jonathan Stewart, Offenburger's cousin in D.C. "I have a lot of respect for him. Clearly someone's done a good job of raising him."

"I thank my grandpa for helping me find this school at MSSD because it's good for me," Offenburger said. "It's the best place for me."

©Daily Nonpareil 2004