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December 20, 2004

Sign of caring driver is student's needs heard

From: The Express Times - Easton,PA,USA - Dec 20, 2004

Monday, December 20, 2004
The Express-Times

School bus driver Victoria Bedford smiled when she met Ciarra Meletiche this year.

As she approached the South Side stop, Bedford noticed the 12-year-old talking in sign language to her mom. As Marisol Marrero introduced her deaf daughter to Bedford, Marrero resigned herself to once again sending off Ciarra into a silent world she struggles to understand.

But Bedford, a driver of special needs students since 2002 in the Bethlehem Area School District, was determined to communicate with the girl.

She found a beginner's American Sign Language course starting in mid-September at Northampton Community College.

Today she's in the intermediate course and plans to continue on to advanced in the spring semester. The 11 other children on Ciarra's route have graduated from teasing her because they thought she was ignoring them to talking with her in signs that Bedford and Ciarra teach them.

Their favorite saying is, "See you later, alligator" -- a fluid motion that starts with a point to the eye and becomes a thumb-and-forefinger "L" as the hand comes down to make chomping teeth out of both hands' fingers.

"That's a fun one because it always makes her smile," Bedford said.

It all started with that smile from behind the wheel of another new bus for Ciarra.

This year the bus would take the sixth-grader to East Hills Middle School to join five other hearing-impaired students. The Colonial Northampton Intermediate Unit 20 runs a class there with a teacher and interpreter, said Donna Hopstetter, the IU's supervisor of special education speech and hearing programs.

Bedford found herself immersed immediately in sign language at the community college because instructor Doni Piccarello is deaf.

Piccarello's "ability to handle the situation of communicating with us when we were all hearing and she was the only deaf person really inspired me that I could be able to communicate with my deaf student in any situation and make it work and make it happen," Bedford said.

The courses included visits to a deaf bowling league at AMF Parkway Lanes in Allentown. Bedford said she was amazed to be able to carry on conversations with the participants.

"You just have to ask them to speak real slowly because their motions go very quick," she said. "It's just like learning a foreign language. That's one of the first things you learn in sign language."

On the bus, signing has come in handy when a student got sick and Bedford had to pull over.

She showed Ciarra the sign for "sick so she knows what's going on. It can cause a lot of frustration and panic in them when they don't know what's going on because they can't hear."

Marrero recalled two panic-stricken hours she and her daughter endured. Ciarra was flying alone to North Carolina to visit her father. The airline let Marrero on board to get Ciarra settled. But after she returned to the terminal and the boarding stairs were taken away, the plane sat delayed for two hours.

"I was devastated," Marrero said. "I could not communicate with her. It was cruel knowing that everyone else on the plane was explained to what was going on and was comforted by the staff there, other than my daughter."

Marrero said Bedford is "wonderful." She's the first adult the two ever met who took the initiative to learn to communicate with Ciarra, Marrero said.

Ciarra was diagnosed with profound hearing loss at 9 months old, the result of a meningitis virus she contracted two weeks after she was born three months premature, her mother said.

"She's an amazing kid," Marrero said. "I'm a single mom. The two of us, somehow we just keep on going."

David Himmelberger, supervisor of transportation for Bethlehem Area schools, said Bedford represents the attachment formed by all 120 of the district's drivers to their students.

"I wouldn't say that it's really unusual, other than the extra steps that she went to," said Himmelberger, who oversees the transportation of 10,000 students every school day as far east as Phillipsburg and as far west as Lower Macungie Township.

Bedford, of Lower Nazareth Township, does not know how long she'll remain in the area. Her husband, the Rev. John Bedford, is currently assigned to Calvary Baptist Church on Dewberry Avenue in Bethlehem. Past years have taken them from Florida to Georgia and New Hampshire for five years at a time before taking them to the Lehigh Valley.

She wants to stay until their son, 14-year-old Justin, graduates Nazareth Area High School. Their daughter, 18-year-old Brittany, is a freshman at Lancaster Bible College.

No matter what the future holds, Victoria Bedford plans to enjoy one school day at a time -- and practice her skills one at a time.

"I do not drive and do sign language at the same time," she said. "No, I keep two hands on the wheel. If I need to talk to her while we're en route, I pull the bus over."

Reporter Kurt Bresswein can be reached at 610-258-7171 or by e-mail at

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