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    The sound of success

    A Pinellas library program reaches out to deaf people to help them develop the basic reading, writing and mathematics skills they need to flourish in society.

    [Times photo: Scott Keeler]
    Brad Popichak, left, sighns to Tom Cooney during a gathering Friday evening at the Deaf Literacy Center at the Safety Harbor Public Library.

    By LEON M. TUCKER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


    SAFETY HARBOR -- Rosa Rodriguez worked quickly to get ready for her class.

    A few strands of the 30-year-old woman's curly black hair dangled over her forehead as she pulled out workbooks and accessed learning programs on the classroom computer before class began at 6 p.m.

    Three of her students already were there looking over word problems and discussing the complexities of the day's lesson with each other.

    Then there was a crash.

    A large box filled with plastic and wooden blocks toppled from a stack in the back corner of the tiny room and made a loud, smashing sound.

    The noise startled Rodriguez. The students, however, were not fazed.

    "They didn't hear it," Rodriguez said.

    She used sign language to tell the three what had happened, and they pitched in and gathered up the spilled blocks.

    Rodriguez runs the Deaf Literacy Center at the Safety Harbor Public Library. The program, which is financed by the Pinellas County Public Library Cooperative, teaches basic reading, writing and math skills to children and adults.

    "Literacy is so important," Rodriguez said. "Sometimes it's a matter of life and death."

    Rodriguez, who is not hearing-impaired, began learning sign language in 1992 at a church for the deaf she attended while living in Puerto Rico. It took six months for her to learn sign language.

    "I just fell in love with it," she said.

    From there, she moved to Tennessee where she graduated from college and moved to Safety Harbor in 1996 to work with the hearing-impaired.

    "A lot of times they think they can't do things I know they can do," Rodriguez said of her students. "We just never give them a chance to do it."

    Ninety-percent of the students who use the program are adults in their 20s and 30s, the Pinellas library cooperative's records show.

    One of the students is Bill Touchton, who also works cleaning the kitchen at the Safety Harbor spa.

    "I've been in the program since the end of 1998, and little by little I'm learning words and how to memorize them. And I'm motivated because I get a lot of help," the 27-year-old said. "But it is frustrating because when I'm at work it's hard because I sometimes don't understand them and they don't understand me."

    About three years ago, officials at the Safety Harbor library noticed an influx in hearing-impaired patrons who would use the library, but no one on the staff was able to adequately communicate with them.

    In 1998, with a grant from the state, the library launched a program for the hearing-impaired and asked Rodriguez to run it. However, after two years the grant money ran out and the program was in danger of shutting down.

    "So we adopted it," said Bernadette Storck, administrator of the Pinellas library cooperative. "It's another indication that the cooperative reaches out to provide services that you would not consider an everyday service from the library, and we are very happy to provide these services."

    The program costs about $60,000 to run. That covers Rodriguez's salary, supplies and transportation for the students who need it.

    In December, Rodriguez met with, taught or worked with 624 people in the literacy program. In addition to the work she does in the classroom, Rodriguez has taken some of her adult students to the grocery store, and to the bank to teach them how to open a bank account.

    Monica Johnson, 22, volunteers shelving books at the library and teaches sign language on Mondays.

    Johnson lost her hearing when she was 3 months old after suffering a high fever.

    "Since I've been coming here, I'm learning how to read and write better," she said. "It's very important for me to learn more and to be more assertive not only in the deaf community but in the hearing community."

    For information on the Deaf Literacy Center, call (727) 724-1525 ext. 232.

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