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November 9, 2004

Sign of respect

From: Press-Enterprise, CA - Nov 9, 2004

King volleyball player Katrina Clark shows pride in her deaf parents

12:31 AM PST on Tuesday, November 9, 2004

By ERIC-PAUL JOHNSON / The Press-Enterprise

RIVERSIDE - Katrina Clark's first year wasn't very different from most babies. Her first word, cat, was communicated to her parents at 9 months. Only the word wasn't spoken through her voice; it was said through sign language.

Clark, now the standout senior outside hitter on the Riverside King girls' volleyball team, is a child of deaf parents. Clark's mother, Antonia, was born deaf like most of her family before, and Clark's father, Ken, lost his hearing after contracting spinal meningitis as a child.

Her parents' condition never has been an issue for Clark.

"I don't think I had ever had a feeling or sense that anything was different," said Katrina, now 16. "I grew up thinking, 'My parents are deaf. It's not a big deal to me.' Signing was my first language, and I just went about my life thinking nothing of it."

Ken and Antonia said they never looked into their statistical chances of having a deaf child or a hearing child. Deafness usually is a genetic trait passed on from parents to their children.

The Clarks learned the gene had not been passed to Katrina shortly after she was born. Ken accidentally knocked over a trash can in the delivery room, and Katrina reacted to the sound with loud cries.

Katrina's sisters, 13-year-old Kambrina and 11-year-old twins Kalina and Kasimira, also were born with the ability to hear.

"The only concern we had was that our children were healthy," Antonia said through an interpreter. "With my entire family being deaf, we knew it was a strong possibility we would have a deaf child.

"It wouldn't have mattered to us, but I never really wanted to have a deaf child."

The Clarks began teaching their children sign language from the day they were born. There were the occasional stumbling blocks - like when a very young Katrina confused the sign for fever - but all of the children began signing between 9 and 12 months.

Katrina said she never was ridiculed or teased about her parents' deafness by other children. Katrina would get the occasional question why her parents didn't use their voices, but she said people became interested when she explained her parents' condition.

"People were intrigued about my parents and the fact I knew sign language," Katrina said. "It was cool to them and it was fun teaching my friend how to sign."

Mark Rust is the coordinator of the graduate program in Deaf Education at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., and he too is a child of deaf parents. Rust said the growing acceptance of deafness in society has made it much easier for Children of Deaf Adults (CODAs).

Rust's parents grew up in the 1920s, a time when many people equated deafness to an inability to communicate. Deaf parents in that era usually refused to sign in public, fearing derision for them and their children. And the children often had a feeling of embarrassment.

"There has been a big shift because people nowadays are more aware and more sensitive to deaf people," Rust said. "Deaf parents gradually developed stronger self-esteem about their condition, and that made it more comfortable for the kids."

The Clarks remain actively involved in the deaf community. Both work at California School for the Deaf, Riverside, where Ken is a graphic arts teacher and Antonia is a residential counselor. They try not to shy away from the hearing world, but the communication barrier can be difficult to work through.

Ken went to schools and played on sports teams with hearing students for several years before he came to CSDR for high school. Therefore he feels more at ease in these settings. Ken has even coached youth sports teams with hearing children.

"Ken is excellent with the hearing kids, and he finds it very easy to get along with them," Antonia said. "I'm not as comfortable because I'm not used to that world. I never know if I will be able to communicate with hearing people."

The language barrier has its share of drawbacks for the Clarks, especially when it comes to being involved in their children's extracurricular activities. Ken and Antonia expressed a desire to attend more team functions, and both wish they could have coached their children in youth sports.

Despite the barrier, Ken and Antonia have become valued members of the King volleyball family. After a match, neither hesitates to mingle with other parents and their families.

"I think people were a little scared of my parents at first," Katrina said. "Now, everyone loves my parents and they love being around them. And my parents enjoy when they're involved and don't see people backing away from them."

It was at a parents' meeting that King volleyball coach Gene Krieger learned of the Clarks' story. Krieger said it felt odd that one of the players was at the meeting, but then he saw Katrina relaying his words to her parents through sign.

"I have gained a much deeper appreciation of what she does," Krieger said of Katrina's ability to sign. "It's amazing to sign and listen at the same time and keep up at such a fast speed."

Katrina puts the communication skills she learned as a young child to use on the volleyball court. Krieger called her the team's most active communicator, and Katrina is very vocal during matches.

"My friends and teammates would say that I'm a very loud person," Katrina said with a laugh.

Katrina helped King capture the Ivy League title this season, and she will be on the court tonight when the Wolves host Moreno Valley Valley View in a Division 1A first-round playoff match. Despite standing just 5-foot-4, Katrina is among the area's very best outside hitters.

"She made the all-league team as a sophomore, and she was just hitting softy shots at the time," Krieger said. "Two years of weight training and jump training, and she's one of the best hitters in the league.

"She has no fear at the net."

Before she came to King, Katrina primarily was a passer and back-row player. Her goal, however, was to move into the front row and be a hitter.

"Front row players get all the recognition, and I was always saying to myself, 'I want to be known,' " Katrina said.

"People always tell me, 'You're only 5-4. How big of a hitter can you really be?' I told them, 'Just come watch me play.' It's an awesome feeling when people come up to me after matches and tell me, 'I didn't know you could do that.' "

Though they never have heard their daughter's name being announced before a match or the roar of the crowd when she hammers a ball down for a kill, Ken and Antonia get the same thrill watching their daughter play as other parents.

"It's hard to explain, but we are so proud of her," Ken said through an interpreter. "When she was growing up, we always taught her to be the best athlete she could be, and she certainly has proven herself at this level."

Some things needn't be spoken or heard to be understood.

Reach Eric-Paul Johnson at or (951) 368-9530.

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