Students across the country are struggling with online learning and that struggle is compounded when the student is deaf or hard of hearing.
A local organization that serves those students, Spokane HOPE, is planning an online fundraiser in October as it tries to continue providing services to deaf and hard of hearing children from birth to age 5.
Spokane HOPE, which stands for Hearing Oral Program of Excellence, specializes in at-home services for children up to age 3, small groups for toddlers and a preschool that focuses on listening and spoken language.
Development director Kim Schafer said the in-home services for the youngest children have been the most affected during the COVID-19 pandemic because the teacher in charge of the programs can’t visit people’s homes. “We serve 38 babies right now,” she said.
At that age the teacher works to help parents embrace their child’s diagnosis and decide what form of communication they want to use – voice, sign language or a combination of the two.
“Everything we do is parent choice,” she said. But it’s nearly impossible to do everything over the internet.
“She’s on the floor with these little babies,” Schafer said. “she’s modeling for these families. You can’t do that over the internet. For the most part what she’s had to do is support the parents. It’s creating challenges for the families.”
It’s difficult to interact with deaf or hard of hearing children via Zoom even if they have some sort of hearing assistance device. Children who are deaf or hard of hearing are already listening through technology and adding Zoom just complicates the matter, Schafer said.
The organization restarted its preschool for children ages 3-5 earlier this month. All the children have hearing devices, and the preschool is spoken word only. “We’re really focusing on the auditory brain development,” she said. “That’s the goal, when they go off to kindergarten, is that you can barely tell that they’re different from their peers.”
Mariah Cochran is glad the preschool has restarted. She brings her 4-year-old son, Gavin, from their home near Missoula for a week once a month.
“There’s nothing in Montana like this,” she said.
Her son’s audiologist is in Spokane, and she heard about Spokane HOPE there, Cochran said. Her son is in a regular preschool at home, but the teacher has no training in teaching deaf and hard of hearing children. She said she likes that there are three or four adults in a class with seven children at Spokane HOPE.
“Everything is so focused on language acquisition,” she said. “There’s lots of things they easily miss because of their hearing loss. This is his last year to catch up before he starts school.”
Schafer said they are taking every precaution during COVID-19. Visitors are asked a series of screening questions and have their temperature taken when they arrive. Staff and guests wear masks and sometimes face shields as well.
Schafer said they hope to start their toddler group again sometime in October. The toddler group and the preschool are important for the children’s social and emotional development because it’s often the first time they’ve met other children who are also deaf or hard of hearing, she said.
“For most of these kids, the friendships are just off the charts,” she said.
The pandemic hasn’t just affected the organization’s programs. It has also affected its bottom line.
“We’ve seen an impact in our grants, an impact in our donations,” she said. “These kids still need this program.”
That makes the ninth annual (and first virtual) Hoedown for HOPE fundraiser even more important. Last year’s event raised $230,000 and organizers were hoping to increase that to $250,000 this year, Schafer said, but that might not be possible. Some businesses that normally help sponsor the event are unable to help this year because they are struggling, she said.
“They’re trying to keep their doors open,” she said.
But Schafer said she hopes that because the fundraiser is online, more people across the country can participate than if it were an in-person event.
The online program includes a video that features families affected by Spokane HOPE, and Schafer warns that tissues might be necessary.
“It’s so impactful,” she said. “It has three families sharing their stories.”
During the hour program there will also be a live auction and a paddle raise for those who want to donate but don’t want to buy anything at the auctions. People can register for the Hoedown at spokanehope.org.
Schafer said Spokane HOPE has existed for 17 years and the staff hopes to serve children for many years to come.
“We’re just very, very thankful to be here and help these kids,” she said.
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