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March 17, 2007

PROFILE: Lewiston native experiencing a new world

From: Tonawanda News - North Tonawanda,NY,USA - Mar 17, 2007

Disabilities haven’t stopped Jake Leffler from reaching goals

By Rick Forgione/
Niagara Gazette

Like most teenagers, Jake Leffler and his mother have different opinions on what makes good television.

“He watches C-SPAN like I watch American Idol,” his mother, Sheryl Leffler said.

While that may sound unusual for a 19-year-old, it’s all par for the course for a college freshman currently interning in U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton’s offices in Washington, D.C. Born without the ability to hear or speak, the internship is just one of the major obstacles the Lewiston native has accomplished in his young life so far.

And the future looks even brighter.

Leffler received his high school diploma from the Lewiston-Porter School District after graduating from St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in Buffalo last June. He is now a freshman at the Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the only deaf university in the world.

Targeting a career in government and fighting for civil rights of those like him, it didn’t take long for Leffler to get his feet wet. About a month after he arrived on campus, he joined a student protest bent on having the recently hired college president removed. Protesters believed the hiring process was flawed and the new leader didn’t represent the best interests of the handicapped students of the college, Leffler explained.

As part of the group, Leffler served as an interpreter for individuals who were both blind and deaf, using the hand-over-hand sign language method. He also was involved in numerous meetings, discussions and a march on Capitol Hill with over 3,000 people.

While he was very passionate about the cause, Leffler made it a point to not cross the line into doing anything against the law or that would jeopardize his future.

“I was very careful, but still very, very involved,” he said, using sign language interpreted by his mother during an interview this week.

Eventually, the students won out as the college’s board decided to withdraw the new president’s appointment and hire a new candidate to an interim position. Leffler didn’t need to use words to describe his feelings about the personnel change. He simply smiled and nodded his head in approval.

With his first protest behind him, one would think Leffler would just relax the rest of his freshman year. That’s just not his style.

In January, he started an internship in Clinton’s Washington, D.C. office — a responsibility very few first-year college students are given.

“I never thought it would happen” Leffler signed. “It was wonderful to meet her.”

Most of his internship duties involve reading letters sent to Clinton from her constituents in New York, however there are the occasional visit to senate meetings or getting a close look at such high-profile civil activists like Jesse Jackson or politicians like Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

But don’t expect Leffler to be star-struck.

“You have to be very professional,” he signed. “You can’t act like a tourist.”

Though his internship is scheduled to end in May, Leffler is hoping to continue working for Clinton in the future, perhaps during her run for the White House.

“He’s going to grab at every opportunity that heads his way,” his mother said.

In the meantime, he’s got plenty of responsibilities at Gallaudet to keep him occupied. As class secretary, Leffler is heavily involved in the governmental affairs of the university and advocating for the deaf. He believes his time away at college has not only opened up new opportunities, but unlocked a whole new world.

“I’m discovering more about myself and who I am,” he signed, adding going to a college exclusively for the deaf has helped him become more open-minded. “It’s very different out there, there’s more accessibility and more of a deaf world.”

Leffler earned a 4.0 grade point average his first semester at Gallaudet, despite splitting time between classes, contributing to student causes and community service raising money for worthy organizations. Next fall, he will declare his major and is leaning toward political science, an idea inspired from his internship in Clinton’s office.

Sheryl Leffler said she’s proud of her oldest son, but misses him a lot, especially since his visits home are so far between.

“The first time he came home, he was sad when he had to leave and go back to school,” she said. “Now he’s sad when he has to leave there and come home.”

Still, there’s plenty of things her son misses that only she can provide. When he arrived home for spring break this past week, he brought with him two full suitcases of dirty laundry.

“I also miss the food,” he signed, “and my friends and family.”

While at college, mother and son communicate through a video telephone system. However, Sheryl Leffler teases that even those sessions are dwindling.

“He used to call home every day,” she said, laughing. “I’m lucky if it’s once a week now.”

Leffler is hoping to make a career out of advocating for the deaf, possibly by becoming a lawyer and practicing constitutional law. He believes his growing interest in politics could also be a valuable tool. Whatever he decides to do, Leffler’s visits back home to Lewiston will become more sporadic.

“He’s already decided he’s not coming back here after he graduates,” his mother said sadly, but allowed a small smile to cross her face. “I’ve accepted it. I think the duty and job of a parent is to help their children find their place in life. I think I’ve done that.”

© 2007, Tonawanda News