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November 1, 2004

School for deaf kids about to lose its home

From: Cincinnati Enquirer - Cincinnati,OH,USA - Nov 1, 2004

'Without (Ohio Valley), my daughter would be devastated'

By Cliff Radel
Enquirer staff writer

MONTGOMERY - Maria Sentelik's gotta dance for her deaf students. But she can't find the right place to put on her show.

She thinks she's letting down the kids she tells over and over: "Everything is possible."

Valley Voices Executive Director Maria Sentelik plays with Lindsay Rogers. (Enquirer photo/Ernest Coleman)

Sentelik, 44, is the executive director of Ohio Valley Voices. Since 2001, she has been looking for a new home for the 4-year-old school that teaches deaf children, from toddlers to third-graders, to speak and go on to mainstream schools.

Hiking across vacant lots and touring empty buildings, she has visited 50 potential school sites. Their locations dot her map of the Interstate 71 corridor like so many bull's-eyes, with much promise but nary a hit.

Every time she finds something promising, she starts her routine.

"I do my victory dance," Sentelik said, taking some celebratory steps in her office.

Next, she crows to anyone who will listen: "This is the one!" Then, she finds out it isn't.

The school tried to build a new building in Sycamore Township. That was shot down in August.

Neighbors complained about putting a school on a two-acre lot and the noise potential of its student body.

Ohio Valley Voices has 32 students from 18 school districts. At its new location, its student ranks would swell to, at most, 50.

Last month, the school rejected a site in Clermont County's Miami Township. Blame poor accessibility, as well as the proximity of a cell-phone tower.

Fluorescent lights, security systems, plastic playground slides and cell-phone towers disrupt sound waves entering devices designed to chase the silence of deafness, hearing aids and cochlear implants.

Another Miami Township location, home to Riverhills Christian Church, remains under consideration.

Meanwhile, Sentelik continues her search. She's seen "lots of buildings in industrial parks and lots of basement office space."

She rejects both options.

"They send a message that deaf children are second-class citizens. They aren't. They have just as much right and just as much ability to attain whatever they want out of life."

Ideally, she wants a plot of land for a new 19,000-square-foot school. That's less than one-third the size of a typical elementary school.

The project would cost $2.5 million. The school has raised $700,000 and has been promised a matching grant if it constructs a new building.

Sentelik yearns to find a place so she can do her victory dance.

And not feel as if she fell flat on her face.

"I look at the real-estate listings daily. I'm looking at sites on Saturdays and on Sundays," she said as she slumped into her office chair.

"I'm exhausted."

And stressed.

Ohio Valley Voices is filled to capacity at its present location on the grounds of Montgomery Presbyterian Church. Four children are on a waiting list.

"They're 2 and 3 years old," she said. "That's the optimal time for learning to speak.

"So, as I look for a new home for the school, I have to say to young families whose babies are on the list: 'Not yet.'

"That's very difficult. Children are losing a race with time. Each day that goes by is another day those babies lose to learn to talk."

Time is also running out for the school. Having outgrown its first home, Ohio Valley Voices must vacate its Montgomery location by Aug. 31, 2005.

"Without this school, my daughter would be devastated," said Sgt. Dan Ems, a Hamilton County sheriff's deputy from Springfield Township.

His 4-year-old daughter, Hailey, entered Ohio Valley Voices just after turning 2.

"At first, she didn't speak at all," Ems said. "Now, she has a 500-word vocabulary. She speaks so clearly. And she's a chatterbox."

Hannah Sherlock, a 7-year-old Ohio Valley Voices student, likes to talk, too. Recently returned from a school outing to a pumpkin farm, she spoke in easily understandable tones about "walking through a corn maze."

To a school visitor, she asked: "Do you know what a maze is?"

Not waiting for a reply, she said: "It's like a hallway. Only it's made of corn and mud's on the floor."

Jill Sherlock, Hannah's mother and an occupational therapist from Bridgetown, related "how much Hannah loves this school.

"When she has a day off, she tells me: 'That's not fair. I miss my friends. I miss my teachers.'"

She's not the only one.

Sentelik misses her students when they leave Ohio Valley Voices after the third grade and enter mainstream schools.

"But that's our mission," she said. "We're teaching them to live in the world."

Sentelik's passion for her students, for teaching them how to talk, for finding a new home for the school, is driven by her love of her 20-year-old, college-student daughter.

"Lorena is deaf," Sentelik said. She has a cochlear implant.

"She speaks. But she did not become a candidate for an implant until she was 12. So, she missed out on the benefits the kids in this school have had."

Maria Sentelik wants to make sure no other deaf child misses those opportunities.

That's what keeps her poised to do her victory dance.


Copyright 1995-2004. The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper.