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August 5, 2004

Teacher takes skills with deaf students to Kenya

From: The Missoulian, MT - Aug 5, 2004

By ROBERT STRUCKMAN of the Missoulian

Far from home, at a remote school for the deaf in Kenya, Jill Oberstein had a revelation.

"I realized what it's like to be deaf, in a way, to be isolated, to be a minority," said Oberstein, a teacher of deaf students at Washington Middle School in Missoula. Surrounded by a foreign culture, hearing Swahili in the street, her white skin felt like a beacon, as if a spotlight was directed at her.

"Being there was beautiful," she said. "I feel lucky that I have something to share."

Oberstein returned late last month from a teaching trip to the St. Angela's School for the Deaf in Mumias, a town of about 40,000 in a farming region in the western part of the country. She spent nearly four weeks there, mentoring instructors and teaching students.

The work was arranged by Minneapolis-based Global Deaf Connection. Founded in 1996, the nonprofit sends about 60 teachers a year to schools for deaf students in Kenya, Jamaica and the Congo. The volunteers pay their own way. The trip cost Oberstein nearly $4,000. Over a year she raised the funds by designing and selling T-shirts and taking on extra jobs.

At Washington, Oberstein has five students. Missoula's entire school district has about a dozen deaf students. The school in Mumias has about 600, and Kenya has 41 schools for the deaf that are about the same size.

The large number of hearing impaired children in Kenya is linked to a common complication of malaria, Oberstein said. Certain medications given to a person already infected with the mosquito-borne illness can cause hearing loss. Aid workers from some European countries are addressing the cause of the hearing loss, but as resources are scarce and malaria is not, deafness will likely continue to be a common problem there.

To lessen the danger of contracting malaria, Oberstein took preventive medication and antibiotics and slept under mosquito netting. There were other worries, too, including terrorism and regional instability.

The population in the area she visited is a mix of Christians and Muslims.

"It's just one of those things. It is in a terrorist region. I knew I was taking risks, but I only felt uneasy twice," she said.

For the most part, Oberstein and the five other American teachers at the school had a great time. On their off hours they visited a nearby rain forest and even went spelunking in a cave.

The teaching itself was wonderful.

"The children had a spirit in their eyes that I had never seen before," Oberstein said.

Knowing that she had limited time, Oberstein focused on a few simple objectives. Global Deaf Connection has a goal of mentoring deaf teachers in its target countries. "I think I build connections, a foundation to build on," Oberstein said.

The nonprofit also tries to adjust to the strengths of its volunteers.

As a former wildland and city firefighter, Oberstein brought some unique skills, said Kevin Long, the nonprofit's founder.

"Imagine a school of 600 children, housed in a single dormitory with no fire alarms, no exit strategy. Jill worked out a fire drill system," Long said.

The plan combines strobe lights and a buddy system. Unfortunately, the school lacks fire alarms.

"It's a start," Oberstein said. "But I plan to go back next summer, even if I have to take out a loan."

Reporter Robert Struckman can be reached at 523-5262 or at

Copyright © 2004 Missoulian