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April 14, 2006

For deaf Kelso junior, life's a quiet drive

From: Longview Daily News - Longview,WA,USA - Apr 14, 2006

By Rick S. Alvord

Dehne' O'Connor uses an ever-so-delicate stroke to chip the golf ball onto the green, where it slowly snakes along a downhill path and nestles less than a foot from the cup.

There's a hint of a grin as the shy Kelso High School junior soaks in her accomplishment.

It's the same gentle brush required to create the award-winning drawings that flow from her mind, ones that duplicate the serenity of living in silence.

"The drawing skill was something we didn't know was there," said Megan Moon of the Kelso School District, who has served as a sign-language interpreter for Dehne' since she was in the third grade. "Now she's got her golf and her drawing, and I know she really enjoys both. But the drawing ... it's like the creativity just keeps coming."

This is a 16-year-old with a fertile imagination.

In golf, one of the most difficult and mysterious games on the planet, Dehne' makes up for her lack of strength off the tee with a tremendous short game around the green.

The putter is the best club in her bag. Last week, she buried a tough putt to card her first birdie of the season on the third hole at Three Rivers Golf Course.

She's just as adept with a pencil in her hand.

"I like the imagination part of drawing," said Dehne', who began putting her visions down on paper and canvas in the seventh grade. "I like being able to create something from start to finish."

The little girl

One of her colored-pencil favorites features a child sitting in a straight-back chair. A dark Scottie dog is perched on one side, a small drum on the other.

Never heard a dog bark. Never heard the rap-tap-tap of a drum.

It's a simple drawing, yet says a lot about its creator.

Dehne' was 16 months old when her mother, Rene Estes, learned her daughter was deaf.

"I actually suspected it before that. But at the time, the ABR (auditory brain stem) scan was not standard for children," Estes said. "I had to convince the doctor she had a hearing problem. They scheduled an exam at the Children's Hospital in Seattle, and they confirmed it."

Estes already knew some sign language. She had a close friend whose sister was deaf.

"As Dehne' got older and learned to sign, I was able to communicate with her," she said. "But when she got in school and the Kelso School District got involved, that's when she started to really blossom. She's had incredible teachers. And Megan Moon has contributed a lot to her success as a student."

School wasn't a breeze for Dehne'. There were the typical struggles of learning to read and write, compounded by her disability.

But with the aid of a patient and flexible teaching staff, and through her own determination, Dehne' became an honor-roll regular. She is now a member of the National Honor Society, and last year spent 12 days in Washington, D.C., at a national leadership camp for deaf students.

"Dehne' has even been to China. She's done a lot of traveling," Estes said. "She's really just a typical teen. She likes to watch 'CSI' on television, and she's interested in geology and paleontology. We just got back from spring break in central Oregon. She loved visiting the fossil beds."

Estes' little girl wasn't always a natural when it came to athletics, even if her climb to becoming a regular contributor to Kelso's junior varsity golf team (she recently shot a career-best 49 for nine holes) has been steady and consistent.

"I told her when she was young that she had to do a sport," Estes said.

First up was soccer. Then basketball.

Both were team sports, which require maximum communication among players. And, of course, there was a whistle.

"Especially in basketball, where so much of it is about sounds -- the ball bouncing, the whistle blowing -- and how you react to those sounds," Estes said. "She just didn't have a chance."

Added Dehne': "It was too hard for me. But I still wanted to play some kind of sport. I wanted to do something."

The tranquil Indian

Moon, her interpreter, picks up a beautiful drawing of an Indian girl, who appears to be in her teens. The deep, red-rock colors are a stunning complement to the blanket that's draped around her.

"I love that one. Dehne' does nice work, don't you think?" Moon said.

It's a peaceful drawing, one best viewed in a quiet room.

No whistles allowed.

"I think it (being deaf) might help me in golf," said Dehne', who has had her work displayed at the McClelland Arts Center in Longview. "If things are moving, or if I see shadows or leaves on the trees, I want to look up. But I definitely think I might be able to focus better than hearing people."

Golf is a refuge of sorts for Dehne', a slender girl with big, brown eyes. It allows her to participate, as an individual, for a team. It also allows her to display yet another side of her creativity.

"You have to really focus and concentrate. It's like you're alone out there and you have to think about how you're going to do your best," she said. "I have to remember to do the little things the right way."

Veteran Kelso golf coach Jim Langenbach said Dehne' "has one of the prettiest swings of anybody on the team."

"She doesn't hit the ball far, but she hits it straight. Now we just have to work on getting her more competitive, to have that 'I'm going to kick your butt' attitude," he said.

Langenbach first met Dehne' when she was in the sixth grade at Huntington Junior High, where he teaches. It didn't take him long to convince her to attend the Elks Club Junior Golf Camp at Three Rivers.

"I noticed she was handicapped, and I felt like golf was something she could do. It wasn't a sport with a lot of running and a lot of whistles," Langenbach said. "Then, when she got in the ninth grade, I told her she should turn out for our team. She's been here every day since."

The extent of Langenbach's sign-language skills are a thumbs-up for a good golf shot, a tongue-waving sick facial expression for a bad one.

"We understand each other. This is the perfect sport for Dehne'. And her handicap, although she doesn't let it be a handicap, is probably a benefit to her out on the golf course," he added. "She doesn't hear all of the giggling and the social aspects of it. She does her thing. She concentrates more. I think she's at peace out there when she plays."

The girl in the glass

Dehne' likes to have fun as much as the next teenager. One of her favorite drawings says as much.

A champagne bottle at the top is literally pouring out a beaming young woman into a fancy glass. Her dance partner, a hunk dressed in a tuxedo, is gripping her hand like Fred Astaire as he balances his left leg on the cork.

It's playful and adventurous ---- not exactly a stretch for Dehne', who seems right at home in the middle of the golf team's pre-practice ritual of devouring french fries and exchanging school gossip.

"I've known Dehne' since the fourth grade. She's fun to be around," said junior teammate Stacey Bernard. "I tease her all the time. I'll tug on her hair and joke around with her. I actually know a little bit of sign language, but mostly I'll either write things down or use hand signals."

Moon stands opposite Dehne' as Langenbach arrives upstairs in the Three Rivers clubhouse. The coach grabs a handful of fries and launches into practice mode.

Moon, who has been alongside Dehne' for half of her life, signs every last detail of his speech.

"I'm here for her. I want her to experience everything, even if there's some gossip going on from school that she might need to know," joked Moon. "Basically, when it comes to swinging the golf club, she doesn't need me. I'm here for everything else."

Being part of a team has meant everything to Dehne'. It has taught her accountability and enthusiasm, and has put a smile on her face ---- even when that little white ball has a mind of its own.

"It's not always going to go your way. That's probably what I've learned the most," she said.

As for any hearing-impaired athletes who follow in her footsteps at Kelso?

Allow Dehne' to draw a picture.

"Find something you're interested in, something you enjoy," she said. "Work hard and set goals. Above all else, try your best. Because you never know what you can do until you try."

Rick S. Alvord is sports editor of The Daily News. He can be reached at or 577-2527.

© 2006 The Daily News
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