READ, Allies in Caring collaborate to create environment for deaf children
It began with a phone call from Stephanie Renart, a parent inquiring about sending her deaf 8-year-old son Cole to summer camp, to Lisa Seitles. the owner of READ Preschool and Camp Tuscaloosa. Is there a program, Renart asked, in which her youngster could really have a fun and safe summer camp experience?
“I really wanted to do my best to help Cole have an amazing camp experience with us,” Seitles said. “We’ve always done our best to accommodate children with a variety of disabilities, but because our own son Casey has Type 1 Diabetes it also has a personal meaning to us to help children with special needs.”
So Seitles had the idea of collaborating with Allies in Caring’s South Jersey Deaf and Hard of Hearing Coalition. She met with Ivette Guillermo-McGahee, founder and CEO of Allies in Caring, and for months they worked together to create a memorable summer camp experience for deaf children.
“When we met with Allies in Caring, we discussed how to create a deaf program, how to incorporate deaf children safely into the community and give them the same opportunities and experiences as everyone else,” Seitles said. “They helped us create flyers and videos to advertise the program for the deaf community and also to help us advertise an opening for a camp counselor who is deaf that would help us and our team oversee the deaf children and make sure all their needs are being met.”
Guillermo-McGahee’s parents and siblings are deaf, and her first language is American Sign Language (ASL).
“Because of that personal experience, it’s been important to me to include deaf people,” Guillermo-McGahee said.
During the South Jersey Deaf and Hard of Hearing Coalition’s collaboration with Camp Tuscaloosa, they shared information about how to work and accommodate deaf people, how to find an interpreter, and how to ensure the deaf kids are safe at camp around the swimming pool, Guillermo-McGahee said.
“Deaf kids have a lot to contribute to the community,” she said. “When we include the kids, we support their development so that they can grow up and be contributing adults in the community and also because other kids who meet the deaf kids, they really benefit from seeing their resilience, and how despite not being able to hear deaf kids learn to navigate.”
After interviewing different people, Camp Tuscaloosa hired Kimbsia Demosthenes as the deaf counselor.
“Cole’s having a blast just being able to be with her in the group and have somebody to communicate with. And the other children are learning to sign as well, which is awesome,” Renart said.
Renart has been an advocate for deaf people since Cole was born.
“We’ve been in front of the New Jersey Education Committee,” she said. “We were there for the Deaf Children Bill of Rights signing. Parents just need to advocate for their kids when they know their kid’s needs, whether it’s in school, or community events, or playing sports.”
Renart’s children have tried other camps. In past years, Cole had a deaf language associate from the New Jersey ASL Deaf Language Associates Program.
“He was 17 months old in day care at the state program and they go to camp also, but children age-out at 6, so last year I was panicking like ‘what am I going to do?’ He needs someone. He needs to communicate with someone, an interpreter or a deaf counselor,” Renart said.
She said the camp wouldn’t help.
“Instead of putting up a fight I do know a lot of people in the deaf community, so I was able to get seven interpreter volunteers throughout the summer,” Renart said.
This year Renart wanted to try a different camp and, after hearing positive things about Camp Tuscaloosa, Renart reached out to Seitles.
“I think it’s such an important thing that Lisa is doing at this program, to have a place for deaf children to go and just be regular kids and be there all summer is really awesome,” Renart said.
Sam Seitles, Lisa’s husband and owner of READ Preschool and Camp Tuscaloosa, said this is an experience that the children and counselors will never forget.
“My kids are so stoked that they can already do the entire alphabet. They want to show me all the time,” Sam Seitles said.
Besides the alphabet, the children know how to sign words and phrases such as “hello,” “how are you?” “thank you” and “my name is.”
Seitles and staff use the ASL Bloom app to learn ASL.
“It’s funny because I actually learned ASL, I taught myself a lot of ASL as a child because I had a babysitter who used to do ASL in her teaching career, so I at least remembered the alphabet all these years later, which was sort of fun to realize I still had that. And I’ve enjoyed picking up ASL with my kids,” Lisa Seitles said.
This summer four deaf children attended Camp Tuscaloosa.
Lisa Seitles recommends parents with children who need special accommodations to reach out several months ahead of time.
“Creating the deaf program that we have now for this year, which is the first time we’ve ever done this, it does take a fair amount of time and we want it to be successful, so we really need to utilize all the time we can to make sure that happens,” Lisa Seitles said.
Guillermo-McGahee hopes to see the program grow.
“Many deaf kids, they go to different schools and most of the times they’re the only deaf kids in the school and many of them don’t have friends, only the interpreter,” she said. “What this camp makes possible for them is that they get to know other deaf kids, and when you meet someone who is like you, you don’t feel lonely anymore.”
For more information about Camp Tuscaloosa, visit their website www.camptuscaloosa.com
or follow them on Instagram @camptuscaloosa.