A program in Syracuse geared toward families of children who are deaf and hard of hearing wants to expand. Whole Me offers a chance for these kids to grow with others just like them.
It looks like any other after school program. Kids gather around a table piled with books, paper and crayons, with teachers helping them. But there is one difference. Every one of these kids and their teachers is deaf or hard of hearing.
"Our goal is to sort of bring them together and talk and compare notes and feel like we can hang out, because we have the same situation," said Whole Me founder Chris Kovar.
Kovar said the after school programs bring deaf and hard of hearing children from the ages of four through high school from the Syracuse-area and surrounding counties. She said most of these kids have some support in school but often don’t know any other children who are deaf or hard of hearing. So this is a respite from the stress of living in a hearing world.
"It’s like 'I’m here, and everyone is like me. And I don’t have to work really really hard to communicate. I don’t have to strain my eyes to read your lips. My brain doesn’t have to work overtime'.," said Kovar.
Rosie Yaichuk's son Joel was diagnosed as hard of hearing two years ago. Hearing aids helped, but things like community programs were still challenging. So when Whole Me presented a zoo program, geared toward hard of hearing kids, it was a revelation.
"That was really a moment for me where I thought, wow, this isn’t something we could get anyplace else, this is not something that would happen if we were sort of bumping around the community.' It’s only something that can happen in a place where people understand what the needs of a deaf child are," said Yaichuk.
And as a hearing parent of a hard of hearing child, she’s also learning. For example, something as simple as ways to get her 7-year-old’s attention.
"In Whole Me they do a hand wave, which sometimes get attention in perpheral vision, they tap on the table where you hear the vibrations, or they flick the lights," she said.
This is the only program of its kind in central New York. 50 kids cycle through each year, but Kovar says they have room for 200, and hope to expand more into the city of Syracuse. A recent grant from the Central New York Community Foundation can help with more outreach and help in hiring new teachers. Yaichuck can’t emphasize enough how this can be a game changer for kids like her son.
"You can be part of this rich, rich community and this rich culture, and that if given the proper access, you can have every single experience that a hearing person can have," she said.