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May 20, 2007

Students help peers in Senegal

From: Frederick News Post - Frederick,MD,USA - May 20, 2007

By Nancy Hernandez
News-Post Staff

Deaf students and teachers in Senegal cried with relief when they learned a group from the Maryland School for the Deaf wanted to visit their school.
For 20 years, they had been waiting for such news, said Nieshaakema James-Sarr, founder of Senecorps, the nonprofit agency that arranged MSD's two-week service trip, which begins June 8.

Deaf Senegalese students lucky enough to attend school go to one of three deaf schools in the African country, she said.

Two of those teach American Sign Language; the other uses alternative communication methods, such as lipreading, James-Sarr said.

The ASL schools, each of which has about 120-150 students, were founded more than 20 years ago by a Gallaudet University graduate, the Rev. Andrew Foster. Before he established the schools, deaf Senegalese did not receive any instruction in signing, she said.

Foster died in 1987 before any plan was established to continue studies and interaction between the U.S. and Senegalese deaf communities. The Senegalese students and teachers are desperate to improve their signing skills and vocabulary, James-Sarr said.

Right now, the teachers -- who were students when Foster created the schools -- have no materials to learn or teach ASL. They search online when they can get to computers to try and learn phrases and words to pass to their students, she said.

The MSD group, which includes eight deaf students and five hearing adults, will teach classes and communicate one-on-one with the Senegalese students, Brady Painter, 16, a MSD junior, said through an interpreter.

They are taking sports equipment to introduce their Senegalese peers to games, such as baseball and volleyball, Jessica Israel, 16, a MSD sophomore, said through an interpreter. They're also bringing shoes for Senegal's homeless.

Several days will be spent building a library in Senegal's capital city, Dakar, Painter said.

The students and their adult advisers have been collecting books to fill the library's shelves. Other books and videotapes, particularly those having to do with ASL, will go to the deaf schools.

The MSD group originally was scheduled to assist at the Dakar School for the Deaf, but when teachers at the other signing school in nearby Thies learned about the trip, they pleaded for the Americans to visit them as well, James-Sarr said.

The trip will likely gain national attention in Senegal, James-Sarr said. It is the first time deaf volunteers will travel with Senecorps. The organization was formally established six years ago, but James-Sarr has led service trips to Senegal for 14 years.

The goal of the nonprofit agency is to build relationships between countries by providing teachers, students and families opportunities to exchange ideas and skills, she said.

After a chance meeting with MSD social studies teacher, Martin O'Brien, James-Sarr traveled to Dakar in December to find out how the Americans might help the deaf community there. She was startled by the depth of emotion and anticipation generated by the prospect of the MSD visit.

"Their whole fate is tied up to this group coming," James-Sarr said.

The Senegalese hope that improving their ASL skills will help them advance academically, she said. To date, many students haven't moved beyond elementary-grade levels because their lack of language skills prohibits them from being able to comprehend the lessons.

The MSD trip has spurred Senecorps to initiate several projects aimed at improving educational opportunities for deaf Senegalese, James-Sarr said.

The organization is recruiting ASL signers to spend a year volunteering in the deaf schools, she said. It also is raising money to build a permanent school for the deaf on 15 acres the national government has donated. Both schools currently lease space and don't know from year-to-year if they will be allowed to continue.

The MSD participants will live with Senegalese families and take classes at a university and several religious institutions. They will learn traditional cooking techniques, tie-dying, dances and drumming and the native language of Wolof. They will go on several excursions to scenic and historical places, such as a Djoudj, a national bird park; Goree Island, a former slave port; and Pare de Bandia, an animal preserve.

The trip costs $3,500. Additionally, each MSD student raised $100 -- adults raised $150 -- to help teachers at the deaf schools pay expenses or fund the library's construction.

MSD students said they are eager to begin volunteering and experience another culture. They hope their efforts will provide them and their Senegalese peers with a sense of pride and accomplishment. And they hope their work will inspire other MSD teens to participate.

"I hope we do well enough so that other deaf groups can go," Alyssa Marie Chandra Romano, 15, said through an interpreter.

© 2007 Frederick News Post