MUSCATINE, Iowa – The four students at Mulberry Elementary School can hardly contain their smiles and giggles when asked about the adventures that await them during camp in July.
Many students get an opportunity to go to summer camp. But for these students, the Art Exploration Camp sponsored by the Iowa School for the Deaf is a chance “to stretch their wings and practice independence, self-advocacy and self-confidence,” said Kelly Story, teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing for the Muscatine Community School District.
Students who are heading to the camp in Vinton, Iowa, are siblings Lenito Lopez, 7, and Marissa Lopez, 10; Sofia Perales, 6, and Hannah Teed, 6. Sofia and Hannah were kindergartners during the school year that just ended; Lenito was in first grade and Marissa in fourth.
They sat down recently with a reporter, and answered questions assisted by sign language interpreters Lisa Johannsen and Heather Tyler.
Students and staff all sported brown T-shirts with colorful hearts, and the message, “Live, Love, Communicate. Deaf Awareness.” Hands on the shirt sign the word L-O-V-E.
Asked what they are most looking forward to, the children didn’t take long to answer.
Hannah said she wants to paint and swim. She likes art.
Sofia is eager to see a friend from the Quad-Cities who is also attending camp.
Lenito, who has gone to the summer camp before, also has a friend who will be at camp. He likes to paint.
Marissa, who has won awards with her artwork, said she wants to swim “and go down the big slide.” She said she enjoys school.
The $50 camp fee plus transportation costs are being provided by the Muscatine County Parent Group for the Hearing Impaired. The majority of the camp costs are underwritten by the state.
In addition to reconnecting with friends, the students will have another familiar face at camp. Johannsen will be on staff there as she has been for several years.
“We have kids who are just finding out they have a hearing loss to kids who have no assistive hearing devices and are totally deaf,” she said. “Interpreters are there to assist.”
“Assist” is the operative word. A big focus of the camp is helping to move the campers toward more independence and self-advocacy.
Susan Rolinger, director of Extended Learning for the Iowa School for the Deaf and Iowa Educational Services for Blind and Visually Impaired, said the camp “is a wonderful opportunity for them to figure out what they can do on their own.”
“They get up on their own, get dressed and ready; make their own breakfast and lunch, or make it together as a group,” Rolinger said.
Eighteen students are signed up to go to the camp, ranging in age from 6 through high school.
The Iowa School for the Deaf, located in Council Bluffs, has offered summer camps for years, Rolinger said. But in the past few years, residential camps have also been offered on the grounds of the more centrally located Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton.
This has opened more accessibility to families on the eastern side of the state, as well as the opportunity to employ staff from this area.
Rolinger said the students benefit greatly from being with others who are experiencing the same things.
“In Iowa, it’s a beautiful thing that kids can grow up and go to school in their own neighborhood,” Rolinger said. “But it’s an undeniable benefit for these kids to be able to get together. They’re not the only one wearing hearing aids; they’re not the only one with an interpreter.
“These kids have become friends. They just really have a strong connection,” she said.
Mornings at the camp are devoted to educational activities.
“Whatever type of art to be explored will be explained,” Rolinger said. “Then the campers will break up into three groups based on their age. They will all be doing the same type of art, but appropriate to their age level.”
Afternoons and evenings are filled with traditional camp activities like swimming and recreational games.
Each day, camp staff will send photos of the campers’ experiences to family back home. They also will be able to call home, Story said.
That kind of connection is important to all parents, but especially for those of first-time campers like Hannah.
“This is our first time sending her to camp,” said Hannah’s mother, Samantha Teed. “We talked with her and her teachers and they encouraged us to let her go. We thought it would be extra beneficial and help her become more independent.”
Despite having multiple medical issues, Hannah has made great strides this year, her mother said.
“She is taking more initiative to do things herself,” Teed said.
A recent example was the swim outing to celebrate the end of the school year.
“She was strutting her stuff,” Teed said, saying Hannah was proud of her “I’m doing it myself” attitude.
Samantha Teed said she and her husband are pleased with the programs and services offered to their daughter through MCSD. They moved here from Kansas several years ago.
“My husband is from Muscatine, and it was a blessing he got a job here,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect from the district, but everyone has been so wonderful.
“Hannah is reading and is in a normal education classroom with her peers,” Teed said. “She loves school.”
Art is something Hannah particularly enjoys, whether it’s painting, coloring or working with clay, Teed said.
“I really feel like art in general helps kids,” she said. “It’s therapeutic.”
Story, who has been involved in deaf education for most of her life, said her biggest goal for the program in Muscatine is that the students get equal access to education.
“The expectations are the same for them as for any other student,” she said.