IM this article to a friend!

October 6, 2005

Deaf teachers sign and shine at local center

From: Oconomowoc Focus, WI - Oct 6, 2005

Jonna Clark, Staff Writer

They are expressive, animated, and talk and teach with their hands pretty much all the time, and the children they take care of are learning to do the same.

Becky Maffucci, 25, and Ann Vorachack, 26, are teachers at Little Dumplings Learning Center in Oconomowoc, and they are deaf.

Under their tutelage, the more than 100 children in the preschool and daycare are learning American Sign Language (ASL) and a whole lot more.

Ball, please, more, milk, thank you, eat, cookie, thirsty, play, hungry, nice, no, yes and friend are the words the children have mastered so far.

"They are beginning to sign at home, and we have parents asking what their children are saying," said Vicky Steele, co-owner and director of the center.

Both Maffucci, who is Steele's daughter, and Vorachack read lips and speak, as well as using ASL to communicate with the children, who, they say, quickly learn and adapt.

The center has only one child enrolled who is deaf, but all students from infancy through preschool, and even those who go to Little Dumplings for after-school care and the 16-member staff, are becoming immersed in sign language.

While communicating can be a challenge at times, the two said it is never a struggle.

"Children don't feel intimidated by us, but it can be challenging for parents," Maffucci said, and Vorachack added that they write daily reports for parents to let them know how their children's day went.

The biggest concern parents have, Steele said, is how the deaf teachers know if their child is crying. According to Steele, each room in the center is equipped with very sensitive monitoring devices that pick up sounds and flash based on the pitch of a baby's cry.

Also, even very young children at the center learn quickly that the two teachers can't hear and will tap them for help or attention if needed. The children who have already learned rudimentary sign language have also begun to teach the others, Steele pointed out.

ASL is considered an official foreign language, and Maffucci said research has proven that not only do children pick up and retain second and third languages faster than adults, but that children are capable of learning to sign and talk with their hands before they learn to speak.

The two say the children are learning additional valuable lessons beyond the mechanics of ASL. "It is important that children are exposed to people with different backgrounds and abilities," Maffucci said. "They and their families will be more accepting of deaf people in the future."

Vorachack and Maffucci not only work together, but have known each other since they met as students at Lowell Elementary School in Waukesha, the only option in the county for school programs for deaf children.

Both were eventually mainstreamed in middle and high school, and both women attended college. Vorachack at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and later at Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC) and Maffucci at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

Maffucci now teaches ASL at WCTC.

Vorachack was born in Thailand and moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 16 months old. She said she came down with meningitis when she was 2-1/2, and as a result was left without hearing.

Meningitis is the most common cause of hearing loss in children, according to the Meningitis Foundation of America. Maffucci said that many of their friends at school had become deaf that way, though she was born unable to hear.

Neither of the young women has let deafness become an obstacle to pursuing a career or a full life.

"Just because they can't hear doesn't hinder them from being great teachers, parents or employees," Steele said.

Vorachack said she chose to work with children because she wants to make a difference in their lives and to show people that deaf people can be parents and care for their children and are not any different from people who can hear. "We all smile in the same way," she said.

She said she would like to work with children with special needs, because she knows what it is like.

Maffucci was recently married to Michael Maffucci, who also lost his hearing because of meningitis as a toddler. He works for Longistics Inc., and they have settled locally.

While the two said they do not consider themselves disadvantaged in a hearing world, Maffucci perhaps said it best in explaining their challenges.

"If everybody knew sign language, we would not have a disability."

For more information about Little Dumplings Learning Center or learning sign language at WCTC, call (262) 560-2273.

©Oconomowoc Focus 2005