From Kate Couric to MSSD: A Beautiful Connection
"You are beautiful," signed Katie Couric on national television. She was talking to Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) junior Gabriela "Gabby" Cevallos.
Gabby appeared on the show along with Letta Cartwright, who graduated from MSSD in 1990. They were on television for a segment that recognized the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Newark, New Jersey, where they are from, and their story is beautiful.
The Big Brothers Big Sisters Program
Gabby's parents did not know sign language and so they enrolled her in the Big Brother Big Sisters program at age nine. Gabby was matched with Letta, who is deaf and fluent in American Sign Language, and that day both of their lives changed.
"She taught me so much," Gabby said. They spent time after school on activities, and Letta saw that Gabby was struggling in public school. "She encouraged my parents to transfer me to Bruce Street School for the Deaf for middle school."
Gabby flourished. After middle school, Letta knew where Gabby should go to continue her education--to MSSD, the high school Letta had attended.
Over the past 10 years, Letta has been an important influence on Gabby, encouraging her to participate in different activities and to explore new things. For this, Letta was honored with the 2013 New Jersey Big Sister Award.
She received a letter from U.S. Representative Albio Sires. In it, he wrote "In today's world, it is essential that we empower our youth and strive to make their lives a better place to live in. I am aware of all the hard work you have provided in order to make a child feel loved and cared for." These were the things Letta had wanted for Gabby.
The biggest excitement was yet to come. Gabby and Letta, along with others from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, were invited on the talk show of celebrity Katie Couric.
"We traveled to New York, but I didn't know what to expect. I was nervous and wondered if Katie Couric would talk to me on television. If she would, I had no idea what question she would ask."
They also got to meet hip-hop artist Eve, who in addition to her Grammy awards is also known for movie roles and her fashion. The show aired on national television two weeks later.
On Wednesday, September 11, Gabby went over to the Eagle Zone, the after-school social hub for MSSD students, and watched the show with about 30 other students.
When there were only five minutes left into its hour-long slot, Gabby and Letta and a dozen other guests finally appeared on the show when they surprised Eve, a big supporter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, with an oversize check of $10,000 for the organization from a show sponsor.
That was when Katie Couric walked over to Gabby, with Letta standing behind her, and asked what the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization had meant to her. Gabby praised Letta. "She taught me everything. She made me into an independent person," Gabby told everyone who was watching.
Afterwards, Katie Couric said to Gabby, "I know how to sign 'beautiful," and then she said and signed, "You are beautiful."
"When I saw myself on the show, it was uplifting and I felt special," said Gabby back at school. "It was my first time being on television. Friends watched it with me in Eagle Zone, and they cheered me on."
A MSSD Legacy Shared
Letta credits her Big Sister of the Year award to the developmental opportunities she received as a student at MSSD. "I gained leadership experiences during my years at MSSD. I received a good education. I participated in activities and, in turn, I supported others in their activities."
Letta participated in the computer club, was a manager for the girl's basketball team, and was a student worker in the Eagle Zone, among other activities. Letta wanted to pay it forward, and she encouraged Gabby to enroll at MSSD when the time came for high school.
"MSSD was the most important influence in my life. Otherwise, I would not have become the person I am today," Letta said.
Almost 25 years later, that impact continues today with Gabby as an MSSD student. "Prior to coming to MSSD, I had no idea what it would be like other than what Letta told me from her experiences. I was immediately attracted to the deaf community and culture here, and how easy it was to communicate with everybody."
Sure enough, Gabby has been involved in activities that otherwise would not have been accessible to her. She has been an active fundraiser for the Class of 2015 since her freshman year, participates in the MSSD chapter of the Junior National Association of the Deaf, and danced in the 2012 Winter Dance concert "Dance-tastic" and acted in the 2012 production of Peter Pan and Wendy, both student productions of the MSSD Performing Arts Program.
When Gabby was named Homecoming princess for the junior class, Letta was there to see her stand among the Homecoming royalty. Gabby is grateful for the social and academic opportunities she has at MSSD. "I am happy to be here, I have lots of opportunities and involvement."