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SHARP combines communication skills with camp setting

By Rhea Yablon Kennedy. Photos by Ann Dillon.

Note: The Speech, Hearing, and Aural Rehabilitation Program (SHARP) was featured in a segment by Washington’s WJLA TV. Watch the video here, and continue reading below.

Sarah Harcum had a great time this summer learning about animals. Five mornings a week at Gallaudet’s Hearing and Speech Center (HSC), Sarah, age 4, joined a group of children between the ages of 18 months and 6 years in a brightly colored room full of stuffed dogs, toy bunnies, and rows of books about all kinds of critters.

The spirits were just as bright as the decor. “Welcome, campers!” Kara Schultz, a graduate intern from The George Washington University, would cheerfully voice on a typical morning while Jim McCann, a supervising speech-language pathologist, at the HSC, signed the greeting.

Sarah was part of Gallaudet’s Summer Speech, Hearing, and Aural Rehabilitation Program (SHARP), offered over six weeks in June and July by the HSC and the Department of Hearing, Speech, and Language Sciences (HSLS). This year, a total of 14 young campers participated in one or more two-week sessions.

Learning at camp with a professional team

The children probably did not notice the unique aspects of the camp environment-the specialized training of the speech-language pathology staff, the campus setting, the carefully designed surroundings in Gallaudet’s new, “visual-centric” Sorenson Language and Communication Center-and Sarah, who attended the preschool program at the Maryland School for the Deaf-Columbia during the school year, probably did not realize how much energy she put toward learning. But she and the other children developed a great deal along the way. Sometimes only days into the program, parents were seeing their communication and socialization skills blossom.

The child-centered program was designed and coordinated by Andrea Handscomb, a supervising speech-language pathologist (SLP) in HSC, which is a part of the Department of Hearing, Speech and Language Sciences (HSLS). The fun setting, she said, was intentional. “I wanted the program to function not only as a place where children with hearing loss can maintain and develop their speech-language skills over the summer, but also as a place where these children can experience camp without having to think about their hearing loss,” Handscomb said.

However, the goals of each activity were firmly based on educational goals, like making new words familiar. “Hearing a word repeated numerous times helps them incorporate it into their vocabulary,” Handscomb explained. To accomplish this, each two-week session focused on one theme-“farm,” then “pet/vet” then “community helpers”-so that the “counselors” could reinforce language, sensory, and motor skills through familiar topics.

Age diversity aids learning experience

A child-to-adult ratio of one child to two or three adults strengthened the learning experience with personalized attention. The adults worked with each child to develop speech, listening, speech reading, expressive and receptive language, and literacy.

The adults each brought specialized training to the classroom. In addition to Shultz, Handscomb and McCann, the teaching and programming team included Rala Stone and Robin Goffen, HSC supervising (SLPs) , Caryn Heskey, a Gallaudet SLP graduate student intern, and Amanda Hopkins, who received her SLP graduate degree from HSLS in May 2009. In addition to their skills in speech-language therapy and aural rehabilitation, the team members brought a full range of communication skills, interacting in spoken English, American Sign Language, and Cued English.

Members of the Clinical Audiology Team (CAT) within HSLS also helped a great deal, said HSC coordinator Antoinette Allen. These included supervising audiologists Kraisten Roush, Karen Cotton, and Michelle Malta (who also coordinates audiology services for the HSC). These three connected the kids with anything they needed to keep their hearing aids and cochlear implants in top form, from technical troubleshooting to batteries and tubes. “The clinical audiology team was a great support to the program” Allen said. Additionally, Sarah Sydlowski, an HSLS audiology Ph.D. student, provided training and information sessions to the camp staff and parents on the latest cochlear implant technologies.

The children’s everyday interactions, though not outlined in a curriculum, also added to the experience. They passed by deaf and hard of hearing adults on the way to and from camp, and took for granted that nearly all of their playmates had a cochlear implant, a hearing aid, or both.

The rooms housing the program also furthered the children’s educational goals. For the first time, the camp took place in new visually-designed and pediatric-focused facilities of the Hearing and Speech Center (HSC), located in the new Sorenson building. SHARP’s home base classroom was outfitted with technologies like observation rooms and a wireless infrared sound amplification system. Dr. Cynthia Compton-Conley, professor of audiology, audiology residency director, and director of the HSLS’ Assistive Devices Center, oversaw the selection and procurement of the camp’s assistive listening devices.

An education for grown-ups

A few rooms away from Sarah and her campmates, the children’s parents and guardians had their own learning experience. On one morning, parent liaison Jimmy Lee addressed the surprise and confusion many hearing parents feel when they discover a child is deaf or hard of hearing. Lee distributed a poem that compared the experience to preparing for a trip to Italy and ending up in Holland. “There’s nothing wrong with Holland,” said Lee, who is also a clinical educator and coordinator of speech/language pathology services for the HSC. “You just didn’t expect to land there.”

Although the ins and outs of raising a deaf and hard of hearing child were not yet familiar, these grown-ups were quickly getting to know their new situation and each other. Throughout the mornings, Lee touched on a number of topics related to speech development and communication choices, and the parents freely asked questions.

Christina Marmor, mother of Christian Marmor, age 2, wondered about her son’s missed consonants. (Lee explained that this is typical at Christian’s age). Sarah’s aunt, Alzenia Harcum, discussed her niece’s burgeoning bilingualism; Sarah is already communicating in both American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English, and child and guardian had just encountered the Cued English system for the first time. “Will it confuse Sarah?” Harcum asked. (It most likely would not, Lee said).

Brenda Perrodin, Parent Infant Program Instructor at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School and camp parent, was more prepared for her destination. Her 18-month-old daughter, Emma, is the second in her family to attend an HSC summer camp at Gallaudet. Emma’s family members are deaf and in her household, ASL is the dominant language. Perrodin sees her daughter taking major steps in the program. “Emma has been using her voice on a daily basis and she loves to talk,” Perrodin said, noting that she is already singing and trying to speak in sentences.

Fun for the kids

When it comes to kids’ impressions of the camp, a popular word in their accounts is “fun.”

“He just is having a blast,” Marmor said of her son, who attends the River School for deaf children in D.C. during the school year. Memories of the mornings at Gallaudet even followed Christian into the afternoon. “He comes home and asks, ‘Where’s Jim?'” Marmor said.

Dora Velasquez appreciated that her daughter, Crystal, could do “hands on” activities. Velasquez enjoyed learning that Crystal, who will attend the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School in the fall, practiced motor skills while making ice cream and marched her way into language lessons with a parade for the Fourth of July.

The parents also mention the opportunity for their children to interact with their peers. “I want her to be exposed to the ASL community,” said Velasquez of her daughter. Having such a social milieu is especially important, said several parents, when the child is the only deaf or hard of hearing person in the family or in the neighborhood.

Glowing recommendations

Parents and guardians are quick to refer others to SHARP. “I would highly recommend this program for parents who want their children to continue learning through play throughout the summer,” said Raylene Paludneviciene, the mother of Aurimas Paludnevicius, age 3, who will be attending a program at Prince George’s County’s Claggett Elementary School in the fall. “The camper to staff ratio is great and the curriculum is wonderful.”

“The kids were all fully engaged,” Harcum echoed, recalling what she has seen through the observation room’s two-way mirror and learned in daily newsletters. “But I didn’t expect any less of Gallaudet.”

Harcum and Perrodin both hope to come back to camp for longer next year. Paludneveciene also wants her child to return, and would like to see the program expanded to a full day.

The parents are already thinking of SHARP’s impact on their children years from now. Harcum, who commutes with Sarah from Baltimore City each day, is exploring ways to come back next year and stay on or near campus for the full six weeks. She believes that the camp is giving Sarah the tools to be successful while the campus environment inspires her with deaf and hard of hearing role models. “If she wants to be on the debate team, if she wants to be a cheerleader, I want her to be able to do that,” said Harcum.

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