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Putting out a helping hand

May 27, 2010
Arrow Buff

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Sometimes, the facts on the ground shocked students in GSR 211: “Deaf Latino Identities.”

The members of the spring semester class learned, for example, that the entire Fundación Helen Keller, a school serving deaf children outside of Bogotá, Colombia, had only one desktop computer for its 35 students and five staff and volunteers. The class of 16 Gallaudet students soon discovered something else: Despite Colombia’s location in South America, where it is bisected by the Equator, the children endured chilly nights in dorms that lacked proper bedding.

“The students are very poor, and they live in the mountains where it’s always cold,” explained Anthony Harrison, a business administration major in the class. The youngsters all slept under sheets atop thin mattresses.

“When we made a list of supplies we wanted to send them,” recalled international studies major Kristine Gauna, “we wrote ‘Mattresses!!!’ with three exclamation points.”

The students also followed a wish list made up by pupils at the school. Topping the list was funds toward a new building that they could own rather than rent.

The Gallaudet students continued to make discoveries and devise ways to help. Guidance came from Dr. Cristina Berdichevsky, a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures; and Franklin Torres, an instructor in the Department of Applied Literacy. The teachers worked with the class as it consulted members of the Colombian deaf community, conducted research into their situation, and carried out a comprehensive service learning project to benefit the school.

Some of the class’ information came straight from resident experts. Several critical pieces of information came from Danilo Torres (no relation to Franklin), a graduate student at Gallaudet, and Maria Perdomo, an undergraduate. They both grew up in Colombia and have coordinated numerous support efforts for deaf children in their home country. The two know the University well, as students and assistant instructors in Spanish and GSR classes, where they have taught Colombian sign language, known as LSC. They also could compare conditions and attitudes at Colombian schools for deaf students to the environment in classrooms and dorms on campus.

The Gallaudet students soon turned their shock about the difficulties of growing up deaf or hard of hearing in Colombia into inspiration, and learned that they could make a significant difference. Harrison, who is considering a second major in international studies, helped to coordinate an unprecedented fundraising effort. He and his classmates held four car washes over the semester, while Gauna organized an equal number of bake sales. Together, they netted twice what previous classes had raised. Rebecca Roa, an English major, led the outreach group that served as a liaison with the school.

The class put its $1,500 toward two mini laptops and a CD reader for the foundation.  They plan to send the remaining funds directly to the school, allowing administrators to purchase quality bedding and other supplies, and invest in a new facility if they so choose.

Gathering support has had an impact both on the American students and their friends in the Andes. Harrison believes that everyone will rest easier knowing they helped. “If they can sleep better,” he said of the young pupils, “that will influence their education.”

“I feel good knowing that I am putting out a helping hand to those who are in need,” said Roa, who was touched by seeing what several individuals could do together. She feels she now possesses the skills to organize her own fundraiser for a worthy cause. “It feels amazing,” she said, “and it makes me want to do something good every day.”

–Rhea Yablon Kennedy

27 May 2010

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