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March 21, 2007

Warren center for deaf offers life lessons to its members

From: Warren Times Gazette - Warren,RI,USA - Mar 21, 2007

WARREN - Meet Jason Harritos. He's 27 years old, smart, funny, independent, a phenomenal cook, and deaf. As a baby he contracted meningitis ultimately causing his hearing loss. To him his hearing loss is not a disability ... he's like anyone else. He has a job, a safe and comfortable place to live and he spends a lot of his time helping fellow members at Warren's Corliss Center, Inc. located on Main Street.

(As he rapidly moved his hands, occasionally tapping them together, an American Sign Language interpreter, deciphered his words to the Warren Times-Gazette.)

"No, [it's] not [debilitating] at all," Mr. Harritos said. "[Being deaf] is quiet. It's nice. It's a good thing."

Mr. Harritos was born in Warwick, he grew up there with his older brother and sister, who are not deaf, and later attended the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, in Providence. His parents, who are also not deaf, found out about Corliss through the school. Mr. Harritos can read and write English, and uses American Sign Language to speak with friends and family.

"I came here seven years ago," Mr. Harritos said. "I really enjoy my time here. It's fun. There's a lot to do. We do a lot of educational things like math, reading and studying human rights here in America."

According to Corliss Center Executive Director Mary Wambach, the center was founded in 1985 by the Rockefeller family who was looking to develop a facility where their daughter could become acclimated to a "normal" lifestyle. She was born with rubella and later became deaf and as she aged more issues developed. The family searched all over the country for a place where their daughter could have a facility and they finally found Warren.

It began as only one house and served as a simple day center with six clients and one staff member. Today, the non-profit organization has the Main Street Center, a garden campus, 7 nearby properties that house some members and a staff of 50 who serve 24 clients.

Ms. Wambach, who is also deaf, said she has traveled all over the country and been to many types of facilities, she believes Corliss is one of a kind.

"There's only one in the state and maybe in the country," Ms. Wambach said. "This is not an institution. We don't do restraints. The staff doesn't determine what a member does with their time.

"We serve a wide range of personalities and capabilities. Sometimes all society stresses is how you could be or how you might be ... here we spend more time nurturing an individual's strengths. The duty of Corliss is to structure the lives and the goals of its members."

A "normal" lifestyle

Mr. Harritos has a routine, and he doesn't like it interrupted. He arrives at Corliss every morning around 9 a.m., and almost every morning he goes to Dunkin Donuts and orders a cup of coffee.

"First I'll knock on the counter, or I'll use my voice to get their attention," Mr. Harritos shouted a moan in a deep voice. "I have a piece of paper with everything I want written on it. I show them the sizes and show them a little or a lot [for cream]. I sign one for sugar then no more."

Mr. Harritos spaced his fingers apart signaling a little or a lot. Then put up the number one and wiped his hands across the air signaling no more.

"I don't use the paper, it's much more gestures," he said. "They know some of the signs. They understand."

At 11:15 a.m., Mr. Harritos will ride with his coworkers to Zion Bible College, in Barrington, where he cleans the floors, plates and utensils in the cafeteria.

Carol Dresser, Mr. Harritos' boss at Zion and Pioneer College Caterer Director of Food Services, said he works very well with the other employees.

"He does a great job," Ms. Dresser said. "He's friendly, considerate and kind. He likes the students and the students like him. He fits in really well here."

Ms. Dresser isn't deaf, but does know some sign language. Signs have also been put up signaling words like sweep, mop, thank you, and please. Ms. Dresser said these signs show other employees how to signal to Mr. Harritos.

"I know some sign language," Ms. Dresser said. "I don't understand their sign language very well, but they understand me. Other people help us communicate or we'll write it on a piece of paper."

Once work is done, Mr. Harritos arrives back at Corliss at 3:15 p.m., and occasionally leads the afternoon discussion or activity.

"Jason is very independent," Ms. Wambach said. "He is often a team leader during activities."

In one activity, Jason stood up in front of the 15 members in attendance and signaled the letter T. Then he went around and had each member come up and sign a word that begins with T, or if they couldn't they would just sign the letter. (Corliss also serves people with varying degrees of cognitive disabilities.)

"During the day I help the people at the center," Mr. Harritos said. "It's an important place to do work. I help the maintenance men sometimes and I clean the van. In the spring and summer, I do yard work and we plant a garden."

Moving to Warren was difficult at first for Mr. Harritos, but he said he became accustomed quite fast. He said he really enjoys walking around town and being part of the community.

"It's a great town," Mr. Harritos said. "I like it. I have a lot of friends here. They have a library that I can use any time I want. They know me there and I know how to get there. Everything is close to my home."

Hobbies and activities

Mr. Harritos said in his spare time at the center, he enjoys studying math and reading all kinds of books.

"I like math," Mr. Harritos said. "We have an atlas full of flags I love studying the flags of other countries. We have people from all over the world here and it's nice to read about their countries."

Ms. Wambach said reading and writing English can be difficult for those who are deaf. She explained that sign language is not based on the English language, although it is called American Sign Language (ASL). She also said sign language is like any language, it's different in almost every country.

"ASL is more like Spanish or French," Ms. Wambach said. "English is really a difficult language. If you went to a restaurant and you said you had 'a wonderful, delicious, sweet, beautiful ... what am I saying? You don't know.' You can't do that in most languages."

Mr. Harritos agreed and said he occasionally has difficulties.

"Sometimes reading is difficult at times," Mr. Harritos said, "it depends on the books I'm reading. But it is fun and I do enjoy it. We have books here with signs from other countries that's really nice."

Mr. Harritos also enjoys hanging out with his friends from Corliss and playing pool or cooking. He said the center also takes field trips from time to time.

"I love to cook," Mr. Harritos said. "Sometimes people come over and I cook for them. I love to watch movies. I like army movies, "The Hulk," "Superman, [and] "Spiderman." Sometimes the staff brings us into Providence and we see a play. On a Thursday we will go to the mall. We go as groups and that's nice. Once a month we go out to eat and in the fall we go on the Bay Queen."

Ms. Wambach said all of these activities are something Corliss encourages, she said it's what they're about.

"Our staff don't determine what members do with their time," Ms. Wambach said. "Many members want to go visit someone else they can go."

She added that many people are a little surprised by this, but she said they shouldn't be.

"People with disabilities get so much judgment," Ms. Wambach said. "Everything is inappropriate all the time. I think Corliss has been a leader in that regard. We take into account major daily life activities that people may be interested in and we make those available to the members here."

Mr. Harritos agreed and said Corliss is an important guide for their members.

"It's an important place," Mr. Harritos said. "There are so many opportunities that help the other members here."

More information about Corliss

Warren's Corliss Center is unique in many ways. Here's more information about what it is and who it serves:

* Who they are: The Corliss Center is a facility serving people who are deaf or people who have disabilities and are deaf.

* What they do: At the center members participate in math and reading activities, discussions through American Sign Language, and learn how to become independent and acclimated into a "normal" lifestyle. The center encourages members to have jobs and to partake in activities outside the center and in the surrounding community. Residents learn to plan outings to local restaurants, theaters, malls, and a Bay Queen Cruise.

* When they opened: In 1985, the Corliss Center opened its doors in Warren. When it opened it was comprised of one house, one staff member and six clients. Today, the non-profit organization has the Main Street Center, a garden campus, 7 nearby properties that house some members and a staff of 50 who serve 24 clients.

* Funding: The center receives 85 percent funding from state agencies. Individual residents also receive funding support from state agencies in order to pay rent. Private fees also make up 6 percent of the funding. Additional funding comes from board members and generous donors.

* To help: If you are interested in supporting the Corliss Center you can do so by writing a check to the Corliss Institute, Inc., 292 Main St., Warren, R.I., 02885.

by kelly hayes

© 2007 East Bay Newspapers.