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September 24, 2004

Deafness no handicap to Fort Ripley teen's leadership ability

From: Brainerd Daily Dispatch, MN - Sep 24, 2004

Staff Writer

Tyler Gilson is breaking the mold of what people may think a leader should be like.

For the 17-year-old Fort Ripley teen, a leader isn't always someone who can hear, but someone who is willing to listen.

Gilson may be deaf but that hasn't stopped him from making friends, holding down two jobs and being involved in school activities, such as FFA.

Gilson, the son of Curt and Leanne Gilson of Fort Ripley, was born deaf, as was his 8-year-old sister, Tessa. Since the family owns a farm and many family members have been involved in FFA, he became involved in the Brainerd chapter, starting in seventh grade.

Now a junior at Brainerd High School, Gilson has become an active FFA member, participating in fish and wildlife management events. This year his team placed third at state in the Fish and Wildlife Management event at the FFA State Convention last April and individually, Gilson placed 10th at state.

Gilson decided he wanted to attend the FFA State Leadership Conference for chapter leaders this summer, a leadership camp July 6-10 at Deep Portage Conservation Reserve near Hackensack. The camp provides FFA members with leadership skills to become FFA officers.

"I knew it would be skills that would help me in the future," said Gilson, through an interpreter.

The Brainerd School District allowed Gilson to attend camp with two sign language interpreters, Cathy Saxum and Cindy Herrlich, who often have signed for Gilson during school. About 180 FFA members attended camp. Gilson also attended a two-day camp, sponsored by the Minnesota Farm Bureau, about patriotism this summer.

At first the other FFA campers took notice of Gilson and his two interpreters, staring as Saxum and Herrlich would sign for him. But soon Gilson became just another camper. A cool teen who happened to be deaf.

When Gilson wanted some privacy with the other teens, he and his new friends would write notes back and forth, excluding Saxum and Herrlich.

"I don't want those two old women looking over my shoulder," Gilson signed, with a broad smile on his face directed toward his two interpreters. "I'm just teasing."

"We had a lot of fun," said Herrlich.

Mike Reeser, an FFA adviser along with his wife Denise, said he has seen a change in Gilson since he's returned from leadership camp.

"I've seen a difference just in his maturity level and how he interacts with others, because of camp and his success with fish and wildlife," said Reeser, of Gilson. "He's more willing to step out of his comfort zone. I think it shows (the other FFA members) Tyler can participate and they can step out of their comfort zone and communicate with him."

Gilson said he plans to apply to become a FFA officer next year. He will work as a BHS farm aide this spring and his goal is to attend a national FFA leadership camp in Washington, D.C., next summer. It'll cost about $890 to attend camp, but Gilson is hoping he can raise the funds and attend the camp. Scholarships are available as well.

Gilson said if he's accepted to the national camp, he hopes that his two interpreters can come too.

"I have fun with those two. We have fun together," said Gilson. "It wouldn't be fun to leave them here."

Gilson works part-time at the Fort Ripley store and also performs water quality testing with the Brainerd Extension Regional Center.

Gilson's younger sister, Tessa, said she wants to join FFA when she's old enough. Her big brother has demonstrated how much fun the meetings and activities are.

"I think I'm a helper," said Tyler Gilson, of his leadership style. "I can encourage people. I think I can be a fun one. Generally, I don't know how I'm going to use my leadership skills. Maybe I'll be president, I don't know."

©2004 Brainerd Dispatch