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August 9, 2005

Baseball camp for the deaf unites parents and kids

From: Fort Wayne News Sentinel - Fort Wayne,IN,USA - Aug 9, 2005

The Orange County Register

ANAHEIM, Calif. - (KRT) - You clearly know the sounds.

Bat and ball. Cleat and dirt. Ball and glove.

You can practically hear them right now, huh? Without even needing to hear them at all.

But they barely know the sounds. They only know the game that produces them - baseball. For something small enough to fit in a single palm, the ball still has sufficient gravity to pull worlds together.

"A lot of people don't understand how to deal with deaf kids," coach Ed Mattson says. "They think the kids also are mentally retarded or severely physically handicapped. So they're the ones who get left out. Here, the kids are involved, like they're part of a team because they are part of a team, our team. We don't leave anyone out."

This is the Sertoma Fantasy Baseball Camp, and it isn't the finest collection of ability around. Not even close to it. As youth baseball camps go, in an area where the talent seems to run deep, this one typically passes without being noticed.

That's OK though, because there's nothing remarkable about seeing this week-long event. But feeling it? That's the part that stays with you, the part that bonds them all.

Understand, for a camp designed for kids, this one seems to do a lot of good for the adults as well.

"There's a real feel-good about all of this," coach Kurt Wohlman says. "You get the sense you should be here, that this is where you belong. It seems like this wouldn't be happening if someone didn't step forward."

The first stride was taken eight years ago by local members of Sertoma International, a volunteer organization that, among other projects, focuses on assisting people with speech and hearing disorders.

The group gathered again this month at Boysen Park, with an enrollment of about 30 campers, a fraction of what similar events usually attract. The cost per player was $50 - also a fraction relative to other camps - and, if someone couldn't afford that much, well, they were allowed to come anyway.

Campers must be between ages 7 to 16 and be deaf or hard of hearing. Girls are as welcomed as boys, and organizers this year have added softball. Interpreters are recruited to help with communication.

"The natural predisposition is to ask, `Why are they doing this? What's the hook?'" says Ed Lieber, a Sertoma member and chairman of the camp. "The answer is there is no hook. This is all volunteer and it's all for these children."

What makes this event is a person like Mattson, who dropped off his son, Eddie, at this camp four years ago and "kind of just never left." A former small college player and long-time baseball junkie, he noticed a shortage of coaches, so he stuck around. Now, he's the camp's No. 1 coach.

Then there's Wohlman, who has participated since the first year when he was part of Walt Disney Co.'s employee volunteer program. Today, he's Mattson's lead assistant, even though he long ago left Disney and has no children of his own here.

Bridget Wenner of Tustin Ranch, Calif., says she understands that these camps aren't supposed to emulate the World Series. "This is supposed to be fun. I wish more adults understood that. Too many coaches take this stuff way too seriously," Wenner said.

And Wenner's story? She has been coming for six years with her daughter, Shannon, 13, who has been deaf since birth. Wenner helps with a variety of things at camp. She interprets, coaches and passes out lunches. Pretty much whatever is needed. Pretty much like everyone else.

Shannon attends Pioneer Middle School, a school for the hearing. She uses an interpreter and, according to her mother, does all right. "Some A's, some B's, a couple C's," her mom says.

As for sports, Shannon does everything from playing volleyball to riding motorcycles. She purposely has been exposed to as much as possible, her parents wanting their daughter well rounded.

What Shannon doesn't always see a lot of are other deaf kids. Until this week.

"My favorite part of camp are my friends," Shannon says through her mother. "It's fun getting to hang out with them."

These kids share so much, just like their parents share so many common experiences. The issues with schools in the hearing world. The teasing from hearing kids. The constant battle to convince everyone that communication can happen with little or no sound.

"A lot of parents don't want to involve their kids in anything because they don't want to deal with all the issues that come up," Mattson, 36, says. "That's why we're here. Eddie has been to other camps, with hearing kids, and gotten nothing out of them. He would get left out. It used to bother me, but that's just a way of life."

Mattson decided to coach his son himself four years ago, after overhearing another coach refer to Eddie as "a retarded kid." (Mattson: "Luckily, I'm a pretty mellow guy.") When Mattson questioned the coach, the man corrected himself saying, "OK, deaf and dumb." Mattson challenged him again and heard the response, "OK, deaf-mute."

"The guy was stuck in the `50s or something," Mattson says. "The sad thing is, if you ask the parents of a deaf child, they'll tell you this sort of attitude isn't unusual."

Eddie, 14, became deaf at 18 months after suffering a fever. Four years ago, he received an implant that restored much of his hearing and also has also helped him develop some speaking skills. This fall, he'll attend California School for the Deaf, Riverside, where he plans to play baseball and football, and also wrestle.

Father and son now are sitting in dad's office - Mattson is a private investigator - surrounded by shelves of autographed balls and ticket stubs. Baseball junkie? Mattson might be more than that. He's spitting tobacco juice into a Styrofoam cup and limping around after hurting himself in an adult league game the other day.

He engages his son in a conversation, and see if this doesn't sound like a typical teenager.

Ed: "Which one do you like better, football or baseball?"

Eddie: "Both."

Ed: "What do you like best about baseball camp?"

Eddie: "The girls."

This event ended with a trip to the Angels' home game against Tampa Bay on a recent Friday night. And the group making the most noise in the stands just might be the same one that can hear almost nothing.


© 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

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