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    Beyond words

    Julie Reis, who is deaf, didn't let communication get in her way during her teaching internship. She used basic sign language and a lot of enthusiasm to capture the children's trust and acceptance.

    By PHINDILE XABA

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 11, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- As she gestures in sign language, her eyes roll and her hands slap her lap. Excitement, hanging in the air, suddenly floods toward her as a gaggle of preschoolers bound her way.

    Julie Reis, a 23-year-old intern at Bayfront Medical Center, cannot hear the little children who are dashing her way, but she can feel their enthusiasm.

    Reis is the first deaf teacher's aide to intern at the Bayfront Child Development Center. The children, all who have normal hearing, didn't know how to respond when she started her eight-week term.

    "They didn't know what to do. They were quiet and shy," she said. "Once they got used to me, they started talking to me. I basically had to tell them "I couldn't hear you,' and they thought I was kidding.

    "So it just got to the point where they just like to play with me but they didn't know that I was deaf, and they don't understand what I am saying. But they enjoy it anyway."

    She uses sign language to explain what she means, and Cassandra Morrell, the news bureau chief of Bayfront, translates. Morrell mastered sign language because her husband is deaf.

    Morrell has an 11-month-old daughter, Marissa, with normal hearing. The mother says Reis' presence at the center has made a difference.

    "I wanted my daughter to learn from you," Morrell says to her in sign, and then translates it to simple English.

    Reis would sometimes try to read to the preschoolers, but they didn't understand sign language. She was able to laugh it off.

    "I don't read word for word; I show them pictures, and I explain the pictures through sign language. They are usually happy. Their facial expressions are positive. They look like they are having a good time and are excited."

    "Sometimes the kids are really shy, so I have to get past that and get them to open up. They are really cute."

    It was Reis' decision to call Bayfront seeking the internship. She explains how she did it.

    "I used a relay machine. Always type to the relay middleman, who makes the call to my destination. In the case of the center, we talked to the volunteer office. They were warm and receptive."

    When she was young, there was no relay. Having it now has made communication better for the deaf, and the advent of e-mail and information technology has helped a lot, Reis said.

    Reis served as a teacher's aide during her internship, which was a college requirement.

    "I am studying at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. I have to serve an internship to get a degree. I found this center, which I heard is good, and I decided to come here."

    She enjoyed the preschoolers, the toddlers and the babies, but she preferred the youngest ones most of all. The center has about 127 children, so she would ordinarily work with 12 to 15 children per day on average.

    "I wish she was staying longer," said Patty Clarke, a teacher who worked with Reis. "Kids enjoyed being with her, they learned colors and picked up so quickly on sign."

    Reis' sister, 21-year-old Sarah Reis, lives in Pinellas Park with her baby. The sister is deaf, as are her parents and her uncle.

    The older sister laughs about how the rest of her hearing family members do a lot of writing and reading since they can't communicate in sign.

    Julie Reis was 4 years old when she started school and finished at 17. She went to Indiana School for the deaf in Indianapolis, where she grew up. Her passion for understanding children prompted her to study for a bachelor of science in early childhood development at Gallaudet, which has about 2,000 students enrolled. Then came the internship.

    "When she first started, I was showing her how the security system works," said Kim Borrego, director of the Bayfront Child Development Center. "We were standing outside, I said to her "you punch in a code and then you will hear the "click click' sound.' When her interpreter picked it up we all laughed. I thought, "Oh, my God! I can't believe I said that. What I am saying is that it is a pleasure to have such a refreshing spirit among us."

    Working with other teachers has been a challenge, but not one that bothered Reis.

    "I stuck to basic sign and then writing most of the time. It is never easy to work with hearing people. In the beginning, it was weird," she said.

    "Some people talked so loud and slowly and their pronunciation made me laugh, and sometimes I have had to tell them to tone it down a little. "I can hear you.' "

    She laughs.

    How to help

    If you are interested in volunteering your time and services at the Bayfront Medical Center, call Regan DeLap at volunteer services on (727) 893-6114.

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