Who Will Sign With My Deaf Child?

 

The first day of preschool, Leah was fearless. I was not.

  • I wanted Leah to be safe.
  • I wanted Leah to fit in.
  • I wanted Leah to enjoy the journey and discover things that she’s passionate about.
  • Mostly, I wanted it to go well.

I was aware of how differently Leah was viewed in our neighborhood and community. As parents, we didn’t view deafness as a disability, it was a communication issue, she just “spoke” a different language. I never expected to give birth to someone who had a different native language than I, but it happens. That’s deafness.

First Day of Preschool – Leah Coleman, age 3 – 1999

Leah waited for the bus and I wondered if I was a bad parent, allowing my deaf three-year-old to ride a Los Angeles School District bus. I was able to set those fears aside knowing that her preschool experience was more important than most.

Leah was going to preschool, specifically to exist within, and experience the least restrictive language environment. While she was not aware of it as she boarded the bus, she was going to a place where her native language would be modeled for her in a way that was not anything we were able to duplicate at home.

Leah’s preschool teacher, Jodie was deaf. In Leah’s IEP we requested “full access to her native language, American Sign Language.” Once the documents were signed, I asked the team if they realized that what they had just signed would require two fluent signers in Leah’s classroom. (They had not realized that.)

I explained that having one fluent singer in the class was an incomplete language model for the deaf students. Much like the “sound” of one hand clapping. (There is no sound.) The children needed two signers to have the opportunity to “overhear” conversations. Two signers provide access to the much needed incidental language which is required to fully understand, and naturally acquire their first language, a visual language, American Sign Language.

The district employees were not happy with this news. No matter. We knew that their standard educational offering for deaf children was lacking in many ways. They promised (statistically) that Leah would graduate from their high school with a third grade reading level… So, when looking at preschools for our deaf child, we also looked at the 3rd grade classrooms and the 6th grade classrooms. We wanted to see what the future held for our child in their educational environment in the years ahead.

As a preschooler, Leah’s language was already on par with each school’s deaf third grade class of students. We knew we couldn’t put our three-year-old in a class with eight-year-olds. So began a lifetime of trying to find an appropriate educational setting, as well as appropriate peers for our deaf child.

“Why do you want ASL? No one else is demanding ASL.” That’s what the district rep asked in one of our meetings. We were “demanding” ASL because:

  1. ASL is a full and complete language.
  2. ASL is a visual language.
  3. Our child is deaf.

This was clear and simple to us, but the district representatives were stumped by this logic.

We tried to help them understand, “Leah can’t hear. Because she can’t hear, it’s unlikely her first language will be a listened to, spoken language. We don’t want Leah to learn to pronounce some words in English. Having the ability to say some words isn’t the same as understanding the English Language. Saying some words is not English and it’s not language.”

Then they asked, “If Leah learns American Sign Language, who is going to sign with her?”

We didn’t have a good answer.

They were trying to say that American Sign Language would only isolate Leah.

Leah was born to hearing parents, as are 92% of deaf children. As hearing parents, we lived, socialized and operated within a hearing community.

“Who is going to sign with Leah Coleman?”

The question went unanswered. The documents were already signed.

To meet the conditions in her IEP, Leah was assigned a one-on-one aide who was deaf. Since Leah’s teacher was deaf, she had two fluent signers in the classroom! We believed that this model would not only benefit our child, but it would benefit every child in that preschool class.

2018 – Leah is now age 21. My feelings that surrounded Leah’s first day of preschool and most recently, the first day of Leah’s senior year of college, are surprisingly similar.

Leah is still fearless. I am still not.

  • I want Leah to be safe.
  • I want Leah to fit in.
  • I want Leah to enjoy the journey and discover things that she’s passionate about.
  • I still want it to go well.

Leah is one of 2000 deaf students who attend the National Technical School for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Leah chose this college over our local colleges specifically to exist within, and experience the least restrictive language environment while in college. 

Senior Year of College – Leah Coleman, age 21 (w/CCI Hearing Dog – Robin, age 3) – 2018

The campus, dorms, and classrooms are set up for deaf students. Deaf students have access, no matter their communication method and no matter the technological tools they choose to use, or choose not to use, as the case may be. In Leah’s dorm, the doorbell makes a light flash. In Leah’s classes, interpreters, live captioning, and downloadable notes are provided. There are mental health professionals on campus who sign! <– so hard to find.

Freshman year, Leah’s cochlear implant was lost – L O S T – the insurance replacement process took months, but because Leah has access to more than one language and doesn’t have to rely on the CI, and the school provides access for deaf students who sign, speak, or cue… losing her implant caused no problem! 

College has also provided something we were unable to provide our deaf child. Leah has developed a strong deaf identity. Leah’s ASL skills have reached new levels. Leah has been immersed in a community of signing and non-signing peers and has made lasting friendships and memories and experiences.

Leah is a Resident Assistant (RA) again this year and in that position, Leah helps new students feel welcome and safe at their new home away from home. Sometimes I wonder if our house now feels like Leah’s home away from home. That doesn’t even make me sad. It makes me happy. If Leah feels at home, in many different environments, to me that’s a win!

I’ve been thinking back to the days just prior to preschool. Back when we had no way of knowing where our journey would take us. All we had was a belief that with ASL we were making the best possible choice for our child. Sometimes, that’s all you’ve got, belief and hope.

But, if I could go back in time, I’d rewind to the question that I was unable to answer in 1999, “If Leah learns American Sign Language, who is going to sign with her?”

This time, I would stand up with the confidence, and the knowledge, and all of the experience I now have, and I would answer with certainty…

“Hundreds of thousands of people around the world will sign with Leah Coleman. Within just a few years… many more parents will find the courage to sign with their own deaf children because today we are ‘demanding’ that Leah have full access to American Sign Language.

Today doesn’t only impact Leah and nine other students in one preschool class… today we begin down a path that can alter the world.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

That’s who will sign with Leah Coleman.”

 

 

AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR DEAF CHILDREN ANNOUNCES SIGNING TIME’S RACHEL COLEMAN AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR DEAF CHILDREN ANNOUNCES SIGNING TIME’S RACHEL COLEMAN AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Washington, D.C. – February 5, 2018 – The American Society for Deaf Children (ASDC), the oldest national non-profit organization providing resources to parents of deaf children, announced today that its board of directors has selected Rachel de Azevedo Coleman as the organization’s Executive Director.

“After a nationwide search we are thrilled to have Rachel as our new Executive Director,” said Board President Avonne Brooker-Rutowski. “We are confident that Rachel’s experience raising a deaf child and giving her child access to both English and American Sign Language, her history of taking action to better her daughters’ lives, and her passion for her work will bring ASDC to the next level.”

“Rachel has gained a deep understanding of the importance in empowering parents to communicate and connect with their Deaf children through American Sign Language,” continued Mrs. Brooker-Rutowski. “Together we will advance our mission by empowering families with deaf children to reach their highest potential.”

The selection of Coleman caps a six month nationwide search by the board for someone to lead with vision and direction.

“ASDC has been a resource for me since 1997 and I am honored and excited to lead its growth,” said Mrs. Coleman. “I know the challenges parents raising deaf children face. It can be a daunting task to not only raise a child, but to learn a new language, become versed in cultural nuances, and incorporate a visual language system throughout your home and your life. I have spent my entire career developing real solutions for families like mine and I am eager to apply these skills at ASDC.”

After learning that her 14 month old daughter was profoundly deaf, Coleman was told not to have high expectations for her child. Coleman refused to accept that answer and for the past 20 years has been influential in creating a world where, through sign language, children can communicate their needs and be fully understood regardless of their abilities.

Coleman is the Emmy Award nominated host, and co-creator of “Signing Time!”, the public television show and DVD series that teaches basic American Sign Language vocabulary to families in an engaging and musical way. The series has been broadcast to millions of viewers through such platforms as PBS stations, Netflix, Nick Jr., and mysigningtime.com.

“Through “Signing Time!” she brought American Sign Language to the masses, but most importantly, to the communities that surround Deaf children,” said past Board President, Dr. Beth Benedict. “Her focus in this role will be creating national outreach programs to create greater awareness of ASDC, and to give families the tools and resources they need to raise successful Deaf children.”

Coleman’s production company, Azevedo Studios, and her YouTube production company, SKYVIBE will continue to create educational and value based children’s programming such as Rachel & the Treeschoolers and FuntasticTV. The SKYVIBE network garnered 1.8 Billion views in the last 12 months.

In 2015 Coleman launched mydeafchild.org providing an innovative online American Sign Language curriculum, free of charge, to parents living within the U.S., raising deaf children ages 36 months and under. To date she has raised more than $1.5 Million dollars to produce and create content, curriculum, and additional resources for families raising deaf children.

American Society for Deaf Children (ASDC)

American Society for Deaf Children (ASDC) is the oldest national non-profit organization founded by and governed by parents of children who are deaf and hard of hearing. ASDC was founded in 1967 as a parent-helping-parent organization.

For the past 50 years ASDC has provided support, encouragement, and information to families raising children who are deaf. Offerings include American Sign Language Learning Opportunities for parents and caregivers to improve ASL proficiency and Annual Family Conferences. The 26th Annual Family Conference takes place June 21-23, 2018 in Salt Lake City, Utah and features keynote presenters Roberta “Bobbi” Cordano, President of Gallaudet University and Nyle DiMarco, winner of “Dancing with the Stars” and “America’s Next Top Model.” For more information visit deafchildren.org.

For more information contact:

Lindsay Stephenson, SisterUp: Phone: 310.404.6284: Email: lindsay@sisterup.co

Do You Have a Nest?

Yeah, I get tired.

Sometimes, it feels like I am carrying the weight of the world.

Working to make a difference. Hoping to alter perspectives. Showing families that there is hope.

There IS Hope.

I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety in one form or another since I was 12. I’m 43.

When Leah was a toddler, there were days I got out of bed, just so she wouldn’t see me “setting the example” of staying in bed until 2 in the afternoon. (It didn’t save her from it.)

When the weather turns, we turn to bed. It’s one of the less awesome things I’ve passed on to my kids. We call it, “Becoming one with the mattress.”

“Hey, it’s mom. You okay? You getting out of bed before noon? I’m only asking because I’m struggling.”

Truth be told, it’s kind of nice to have a community of family members who get it. People who just check in when there’s a certain feeling in the air.

I’ve asked those around me to please not judge me when I spend a day in bed. You see, hearing, “Oh my God! You’re still in bed?” doesn’t really help. If you’ve never needed to stay in bed all day, just to get through a day, be grateful you don’t understand.

One day I sent this to Aaron:

Later that day, he had made me a nest.  <3

Special thanks to www.robot-hugs.com for nailing it, and also for giving me permission to use the above image. Special thanks to our friends at The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (Utah) who support human beings when they are feeling more than sad.

Stranger Signs with Leah & Rachel Coleman

Happy Halloween from Rachel and Leah Coleman!

Learn to sign: Mind Control, Bloody Nose, Eleven, Frog Face, Toothless, Barb, Bad Men, Arcade Game, and many more! #strangersigns

Honoring Leah Coleman

Today, a family who has a deaf child contacted me through Facebook to ask my opinion on cochlear implants and American Sign Language. This is a weekly, if not daily, occurrence and I LOVE it when parents reach out to me.

I first refer them to my blog post “Cochlear Implants: My Two Cents

and THEN, I point them to this video, where I share how SO  MUCH can change because of “One Deaf Child.” But, before you click… I invite you to read on.

TODAY, December 8, 2015 is Leah Jane Coleman’s 19th Birthday.

Leah lives in Rochester, NY where she is attending her first year of college. She received two scholarships and was awarded her high school’s Sterling Scholar Award in Theater.

Yes, I am proud to be her mother, but not just for the reasons you might assume. While you’ve likely watched Leah grow up in your very own living room, and she’s very likely shared American Sign Language with you and yours… my proudest moment happened as she and I drove to her college campus for the very first time.

We arrived in Rochester after a red-eye flight from Salt Lake City, Utah where we had just wrapped the filming Signing Time Sentences hours earlier.

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We are tired. We rent a car and start toward a day of sorting out dorms, roommates, classes and the like.

We turn right and for the first time we face campus, (ahem) now “home.” Leah looking at the red, brick buildings ahead of us says,

“Mom. You know how some people believe in fate?   …I make my own fate.”

I love you Leah Coleman. I cannot wait to see what you choose to do with this incredible, beautiful, brilliant life that you live. You SHINE.

You have already made a profound difference in the lives of countless families. You’ve helped countless “Alex’s” communicate with their “Leah’s.” You’ve helped eliminate so much fear that the “Rachel’s” and “Aaron’s” have had as they enter this new world of deafness.

  • Make A Difference (You can check that one off your list…)

or you can keep doing that. It’s entirely up to you.

You make your own fate.

Love, Mom aka The Signing Time Lady

LOVE

 

Confused About Kickstarter? Let Me Help!

Confused About Kickstarter? Let Me Help!

Kickstarter is a platform where Creators can launch new projects. Anyone, anywhere can become a Backer by making a Pledge and getting cool Rewards. You only get your Rewards if the project meets its funding goal. Your credit card is never charged if the goal is not met.

It is not a donation.
It is not tax-deductible.
You are not a traditional investor.
If you like a project and want to help it become a reality, you Back it and Share it with others. If enough people (aka the crowd in crowd-funding) Back a Project it becomes a reality!! Everyone wins!

We have Rewards that range from $25-$10,000 (Seriously, want a Rachel, Alex & Leah concert? That’s $10,000) And you can even Pledge less than $25 and choose no Reward. You could also Pledge $100 and choose no Reward if you wanted:)

We met our Funding Goal on July 27th, but it’s not over!

There are Stretch Goals: each additional $50,000 Pledged above our initial goal will trigger the following exciting things:
1. We WILL make an additional episode! (Episode 1 is done. Episodes 2 & 3 are funded through Kickstarter. Episode 4 is 43% funded right now when it is 100% funded we will make it!)
2. We will open additional Rewards for YOUR CHILD to appear in OUR SHOWS! ($350-500 pledge)
3. We will open another Executive Producer Credit ($1000 pledge)
4. We will open another On-screen Dedication Credit ($1000 pledge)
5. Each Backer who has pledged to Rewards of $25 or more will receive EACH of these new episodes at no additional cost (delivered digitally).

YOU get to say how many shows WE make! <---how cool is that? Realistically this means we could raise $500,000 and for a $35* Pledge (or above) you could receive ALL 12 episodes of Rachel & The Treeschoolers!! Pledge and Share! Pledge and Share!

Here, I’ll walk you through how it all works on this video with my brother, Aaron.

*25 Early Bird pledges are all gone.

Have We Made A Difference For You? ~ A Letter to You, From Me

Dear Friend,
 
Here at Two Little Hands, we have been told by TV executives that our newest shows are too educational for television. I don’t think our shows teach too much – I think most TV shows teach too little.
 
So, we’ve decided to take our new show, Rachel & The TreeSchoolers, directly to you through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter!
 
What is Kickstarter?

  1. It’s a website where anyone can pitch an idea for a project.
    In our case, we are pitching our new show, Rachel & the TreeSchoolers.
  2. If you like the idea, you can “back it” by making a pledge.
    Whether you donate $1, $10, or $10,000, every bit helps!
  3. If you “back it,” you get a reward.
    You can get DVDs of Rachel & The TreeSchoolers. The more you pledge, the more exciting the rewards. At one pledge level, I’ll even write you a song!
  4. If we reach our goal, the project gets funded and you’ll get your rewards. Our funding goal is $50,000. (If we go beyond and reach $500,000 we can complete all 12 TreeSchoolers shows!)
  5. If we don’t reach our funding goal, we get nothing, you don’t get a reward, and you won’t be charged. It’s all or nothing.

 

We are committed to making shows that:
  • Engage children through movement, music, and language
  • Empower and educate children
  • Teach values
  • Make a real difference

 

The truth is we can only continue to make shows if we know there is a demand for them. If our shows Signing Time and Baby Signing Time have made a difference for someone you love, now you can make a difference for the next generation of children by backing Rachel & The Treeschoolers on Kickstarter.

CAPTIONED HERE

 

Thank you!

 

There’s Nothing Wrong With Your Child: A Message From Leah & Lucy

I’m so excited to share my article There’s Nothing Wrong With Your Child. Really. It went live today on WhatToExpect.com in their Word of Mom section.

I hope this gives some peace and perspective to those of you who struggle with what to expect when you get the unexpected… like we did.

Rachel Coleman is the Emmy-nominated host and one of the creators of the children’s television show and DVD series, Signing Time! and its sister-series Baby Signing Time! Inspired by her daughter Leah’s deafness, Signing Time teaches families to communicate through American Sign Language. Rachel’s newest project, “Rachel & The Treeschoolers,” takes on the ambitious task of teaching a full preschool curriculum in 12 musical episodes and activities. (You can become a part of making Treeschoolers a reality by participating in our Kickstarter campaign)

Rachel and her husband, Aaron, reside in Salt Lake City, Utah, with their daughters Leah and Lucy, and Lucy’s Canine Companion service dog, Wilona. Rachel shares her family’s unexpected adventures (aka “life”) on her blog www.rachelcoleman.com.
Rachel is a board member for The American Society for Deaf Children. She is the President of the Signing Time Foundation whose mission is to put communication in the hands of all children of all abilities.

Covered In Love

Covered In Love: Our Experience With Canine Companions for Independence

The application has been filled out and it sits on my desk for close to a year. It is repeatedly buried by bills and then excavated as I pay the bills and file them away. It surfaces. I ignore it. Sometimes it feels like we might be biting off more than we can chew. Just, ask anyone and they’ll agree that Aaron and I already have our hands full.

Lucy has been struggling; it’s been two years of really unpleasant behavior. There is crying in school, outbursts at home, scratching, biting, swearing and resisting transitions. We’ve come to suspect that Lucy’s cerebral palsy may be the real culprit. As we meet parents of kids that have CP they share many similar stories, debilitating anxiety, uncontrollable outbursts.

So, the application sits on my desk another day, another week, and another month.

Whisper
I do a presentation in Sacramento, California. Nancy coordinates the event and takes us to lunch afterwards. Nancy’s service dog, Whisper, is by her side during the event and at lunch.

Over lunch I tell Nancy about Lucy’s fear of dogs, how every time a friend calls to invite Lucy over for the first time she asks two things,
“Mom, do they have stairs?”
“Mom, do they have a dog?”

Being in a wheelchair, if a dog jumps up on her, licks her, sniffs her, or puts their open mouth near her… she is helpless. She can’t just turn around and walk away. She can’t push a dog off. When dogs bark she flinches, she jumps.

I’m not a dog person, never have been. I secretly believe most dogs want to bite me.

But… Whisper… Whisper is just that, quiet and almost invisible! Whisper doesn’t sniff, bark, or jump. At the restaurant Whisper doesn’t give Nancy the “you’re eating and I’m not” stare. Whisper is quiet under the table and doesn’t even seem interested in dropped food. Whisper doesn’t take a potty break unless given a command. Whisper knows more than 40 commands.

Now, I’m fascinated. This seems like the perfect dog! Nancy agrees that Whisper is the perfect dog for her. They had been pre-matched through Canine Companions for Independence. I catch a glimpse, a little slice, of what having a service dog in our family might actually be like. I’m intrigued by Whisper… I actually like Whisper!

After lunch, we walk back to our car. Before leaving, I hug Nancy and say, “Thank you so much! I’m mailing in our application as soon as I get home.” Nancy encourages us to do it and she promises that we won’t regret it. I do my best to believe her.

A Team of Three
Within a few weeks of popping that application in the mail, we get a phone call from Canine Companions for Independence in Oceanside, California. They’ve reviewed our application. We’ve passed the first step of the process and they are calling to set up a phone interview!

On our phone interview we’re nervous and not quite sure how a service dog can help Lucy. We find out that since Lucy is not 18, she won’t hold the leash. This means that a service dog doesn’t free up our hands, it ties up one hand! I try to fathom pushing Lucy’s wheelchair, managing a dog AND signing to Leah. Hmmm. We find out that the dog can’t go to school with Lucy and some of her hardest times are at school. Hmmm.

The Skilled Companion team is made up of three- the dog, the recipient (Lucy) and the facilitator (myself or Aaron) and that team can be certified to go in public, on airplanes, in restaurants… anywhere really, as long as it is a team of three.

I’m still not sure what a service dog will DO for Lucy. If we are right there… and we always are, we can pick up dropped items, and we can open doors. Are we really going to ask a dog to do that? Seems superfluous. In the interview we mention Lucy’s difficulty with transitions and how even though we fought for her to attend public school, with socialization in mind, her behavior was isolating her socially.
Our interview ends. Aaron and I look at each other confused. Was that good? Was that bad?

A few weeks go by and we receive another call from Oceanside, California. Every time they call, I get emotional, confronted, excited, nervous, hopeful, my eyes fill with tears. I see the number on my phone and scream, “AAAAAHHHH!!! YOU GUYS, IT’S CCI!!!!” Everyone gathers around to see what it is they have to say. This time they say that we are invited to come for a face-to-face interview in December! We will work with dogs, learn about the next steps in the process, and share what we hope our family can gain from this new Companion.

I book the flights, car and hotel room. Our interview falls on the weekend of Leah’s 15th birthday. We make a vacation of it- and decide to squeeze in a trip to Sea World, perfect!

It’s December, we pull up to the CCI campus and my eyes fill with tears. Geez! Why am I so emotional? We unload and check in, meet the group of other hopefuls and get a tour of the campus.

The Fam

We spend part of the day in lectures. We learn the command sequence that facilitators use with the dogs and we practice the sequence and corrections on “carpet dog” not a real dog.
Then, they bring in real dogs. Aaron volunteers to go first. He loves Labradors.

Aaron at CCI

Since he goes first, I have to go second. I’m nervous, and I give the dog a correction before the dog has a chance to execute my command. I take a breath and remind myself to have realistic expectations. I get another chance and do better. I just don’t want to blow this for Lucy, if it really is an option to get a dog placed with us, with her. I praise the dog and it’s real praise, I’m SO happy that the dog actually sits when I ask it to sit.

The day ends with our face-to-face interview. In some ways it feels like we are designing our dream dog… “We would like a dog that isn’t aloof, one that will approach Lucy, since she can’t really get to the dog herself.”

It seems a tall request but I have to make it, “No barking?” We are told that is an easy request, none of the dogs bark, not even when the doorbell rings. They only bark on command. I’m baffled.

We request no excessive licking, sniffing or jumping up. This turns out to be an easy request; none of the dogs do that.

“No jumping on furniture” Done! The dogs will not get up on anything without a command telling them to do it.

I imagine the future episodes of doggy-doo tracked in the house. No, the dog won’t go to the bathroom unless you give the command, they are always on leash, so you just pick it up immediately. Really? No “landmines” tracked in from the yard?

We are now clear what the dog won’t do. But what will this dream dog do for our family? Maybe, it will be that missing piece that eases transitions? Perhaps it will become a built-in best friend? Will Lucy’s focus be on the dog rather than on her fears when we are out and about? Will people talk to Lucy about her dog, “Is that your dog?” rather than talk to me about Lucy, “Why is she in a wheelchair?” Any one of those might make a difference.

Aaron asks the final question, “Why would you place one of these amazing, highly trained animals with us? We can do all of the tasks for Lucy, I mean, we already do. We would just hate to take one of these dogs when that might mean that an adult or someone else who could really use it misses out or has to wait longer.” (We’ve already been told that the wait could be a year or longer.) The Instructor interviewing us smiles and says, “Lucy is absolutely a qualified recipient. The Skilled Companions meet a different need than a Service Dog. You aren’t taking anything away from anyone else.”

And that is it. We pack up. Say our goodbyes and watch Shamu splash around.

Lucy at Seaworld

If we pass this step we will eventually be invited to Team Training; a two-week course where we live on campus and are trained to work with the dogs. We are told that we will not be called unless there are two potential dogs pre-matched with us, that’s why the wait can be a year or more.

Summertime
“AAAAHHHHH!!!!! YOU GUYS, IT’S CCI!!!!!!” I’m in the car with Lucy and Leah, headed to Lucy’s swim lessons. I turn off the radio and everyone gets quiet. “Hello?”

“Hi, this is Becky at Canine Companions, we are calling to invite your family to Team Training for two-weeks in August.”

“Really? Really? Ok…. let me check our calendar and I will get back to you.”

Sometimes I fear what my calendar has to say. The calendar shows the first week of the two is scheduled for Camp Attitude– a week long camp created for children with disabilities, in Foster, Oregon… and the second week ends with my Signing Time concert in Boston.

Ok. Family Conference!
We sit down and discuss both options and decide we should take a vote.

“All in favor of going to Camp Attitude in Oregon?
One vote.

“All in favor of CCI in California?”
Three votes.
The votes will remain anonymous;)

I call Camp Attitude and cancel our spot. I call CCI and let them know we are coming. Lucy starts crying, “I don’t want to go! I don’t even want a dog!”

“Lucy,” I say, “it’s okay, it’s okay. I know you’re nervous. I am too. Listen, we can go and if it’s not right for us, we can choose not to have a dog. That’s part of the design. We go. We learn. We make a choice. But, remember, we’ve never had a dog pre-matched to our family. We’ve never had a dog that is trained like this. If we don’t go, we won’t ever know. If we go, we can be free to make a choice based in reality, rather than a choice based in a reaction, or an assumption and fear.”

She agrees.

We pack and drive to Oceanside, CA the first week of August.

As we pull into the parking lot of the CCI Campus, I’m overcome with emotion again! Seriously?

“This is real, you guys. This is real! We are here. We are in Team Training!!!”

We park, and Lucy informs us that she is NOT coming in. “Ok,” Aaron says, “whenever you are ready.” We’re pretty sure that at some point in the next two weeks she will choose to get out of the car. We unpack and go to our dorm room. It’s bigger than we imagined. We have a private bathroom, a bed, a hospital bed and a blow-up mattress and there’s still plenty of room for Lucy to maneuver her wheelchair. Sure enough, in a matter of minutes Lucy rolls in and our girls take off to explore.

Welcome Colemans

They discover two refrigerators in the kitchen; one filled with cans of soda. They are thrilled. Aaron and I get the full report from Lucy, “Mom, there’s Fanta and root beer and Dr. Pepper and even Cherry Coke, your favorite!”

Leah discovers a library of movies on VHS. The girls are excited to watch them all. There’s Apollo 13, Big, Forrest Gump, Castaway, and more. They start an unofficial Tom Hanks movie marathon.

Lucy and Leah come back and excitedly tell us that in the training room there are 12 dog crates with pink or blue nametags. We sneak in and read the names: Topper, Huntley, Waddie, Malvern, Wilona, Talia, Kong, Janessa, Leann, Donahue, Leon… hmmm, we discuss which names we would prefer NOT to have to call out for the next 8-plus years of our lives. (Malvern and Wilona top the list) We’ll start our training in the morning. It’s 9am-4pm daily. We’ll have Sunday off.

The following day we have lectures. We practice the command sequences. We practice with carpet dog. We learn so much about dog behavior and human behavior.

Breakfast and lunch are provided almost every day. Volunteers come in and feed the eight hopeful recipients and their families, and the whole staff.

After lunch the real dogs are brought in. CUTE! CUTE! CUTE!
Really? We are pre-matched with one of these awesome dogs? We look them up and down.

Day 1 CCI

We “ooooh and ahhhhh.” Aaron and I strategize coat colors and try to figure out what color we most prefer in shedding. (We did ask if we could get a dog that doesn’t shed… they all shed.)

We are told to try not to get attached and to try not to get our hearts set on a certain dog. The instructors bring the dogs around and we meet them. We are excited and nervous. Now, we work with the dogs. Leah keeps a secret tally, tracking the dogs that Aaron and I work with. We try to sort out which ones we might be pre-matched with.

The next day we work with more dogs, Leah keeps track. There’s one dog that I fall in love with, but I do my best not to get attached. She’s cute. She’s so white! According to Leah’s tallies we’ve worked with her most. It’s Wilona. Yes, one of the names we had originally said, would not work for us, and now it didn’t matter. She was Wilona, Willow, Willy, Wilsy and Wil. We pretend not to be super excited every time we work with her. Leah and Lucy do their best to suppress grins and giggles of joy. We try not to look disappointed when we work with another dog.

The third day of Team Training is when we are officially pre-matched with a dog. Everyone arrives to class on time. We anxiously await the announcements. They start with Lucy. “Lucy Coleman, you are pre-matched with…. WILONA!” They bring Wilona over to us and hand us the leash. I’m crying and smiling. Aaron has tears in his eyes and he roughs up Wilona’s fur. Lucy grins and buries her face in Willow’s neck. Willow licks Lucy twice and sits down by our feet. Leah has happy tears streaming down her face and signs, “I can NOT believe this is happening!” True. It is unreal.

She's ours

We learn so much. Day after day we work with Wilona. She stays in our room. The first few days I watch her with an eagle eye.
Is she going to get into the garbage? Nope.
Is she going to have an accident on the floor? Nope.
I take her out to toilet hourly, just in case. Wilona sniffs the grass, and then looks at me like, “really? I just went.”
Is she going to jump up on the beds? Nope. Not unless we say, “JUMP”.
There is no barking, even when we say “SPEAK” she looks at us warily, as if to ask “are you sure?”

Day after day, night after night, she’s a perfect angel. At some point we realize that Lucy has only had one outburst in almost two weeks. We are living in a new place. We are surrounded by new people and eight dogs… and Lucy is doing great!

Lucy and Wilona

We tell Willow to JUMP up on Lucy’s bed. Lucy falls asleep with one hand on her dog. Lucy falls fast asleep and doesn’t ask us to “snuggle”. Our daughter hasn’t fallen asleep without her nightly snuggle for 12 years. To our amazement, Lucy sleeps through the night. Our daughter has not regularly slept through the night in her whole life!

Sleepy Girls

We are in class until 4pm daily, and then we head to the beach. Aaron takes photos of sunsets… Leah, Lucy and I photo-bomb his really beautiful pictures.

Sunset Plus 3

Time flies and we are coming up on our final tests and graduation day. Every day we have quizzes on what we’ve learned. We practice with the dogs in restaurants, at the harbor, the mall and K-mart.

At The Pier

Aaron walks in our room one evening to find me snuggled up on Lucy’s bed with Willow. “Now, that is something I never thought I’d see in my entire life!” he says.

We play with Wil. We wrestle her. We play fetch. We brush her fur and brush her teeth. We clean her ears. I use a Dremel to file her nails. She never bites. I relax. “Mom” Leah says cautiously one afternoon, “you are covered in dog hair!!”
“No, Leah, I am covered in LOVE!” …And I am, I’m covered in love.

On graduation day we meet the amazing family that voluntarily raised Wilona for her first year-and-a-half. They gave her the groundwork, training and love to actually fulfill the job she was born to do. Only 20-30% of the dogs born and trained for this actually get placed as Service Dogs. We have brunch with her Puppy Raisers and they give us a book with photos of Willow’s first year and a half. When we come up on stage for graduation, they tearfully pass Wilona’s leash to Lucy. We tearfully accept. Wilona is officially Lucy Coleman’s Skilled Companion.

It’s amazing how much love, time, and dedication go into each one of the Canine Companion dogs. It’s amazing how much time, devotion and training goes into each family and recipient. Canine Companions is a not-for-profit organization, privately funded by donations. We paid for the gasoline to drive from Utah to California. We bought a few dinners. We bought a crate. Everything else, was given to us, everything else; leashes, collars, food bowls, a huge bag of dog food, toys, brushes, shampoo, toothbrush, poultry flavored toothpaste, a place to stay, meals and training… given to us. It almost seems too much.

Wilona has now been with us for eight months. The difference in our entire family is ridiculous. I never could have imagined that a dog would give us so much. I think back to those early interviews, our concerns and the question of what a dog could provide for Lucy, for us. Now I know why no one could answer that… it’s because there are no words to describe it.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so hopefully here’s a glimpse that communicates at least a tiny bit of the joy, peace, and love that our family found, in what seemed the most unlikely of places, our Canine Companion, Wilona Coleman.

Looks Like Love

Wanna Play?

First Day of School

At the Hospital

In the Car
Snow Day Wilona_0039

Day 9 Ghana 2012: Be The Change

Sunday January 22, 2012
It has been hot, but today seemed hotter. Maybe that’s because we have no running water. The power has been on and off, mostly off.

Today Marco and Hannah came over for a little visit. It was great spending time with them.

Ronai and Jen followed some locals who were going to church. Their plan was to peek in on the services. Turns out they ended up being the main event. They were brought up to the front of the congregation, songs were sung to them and blessings and prayers were said for them. Oh, and they danced while the members of the church caught their dancing on video with cell phones.

When they came back to tell us about their adventure, both Curry and Marco had basically summed it up before Jen or Ronai could even say a word. Curry’s volunteers have had that same idea before, and from all accounts there is no sneaking in, or sneaking out for that matter. Marco was laughing so hard when we told him where Jen and Ronai had gone. He said, “They might come back having been baptized. They could be the newest converts!”

The preacher had asked them their names so he could pray for them. Their names are Jennifer and Ronai… so he blessed their work, their group and blessed everything our hands touch, for good. He blessed, “Jennifer and her friend”… (Long pause.) Heh, heh. Jen and Ronai smiled, it’s not the first time someone wasn’t quite sure of Ronai’s name, (it sounds like Renee but with an O. Ro-Nay). But, the preacher continued, “her friend, whose name is so powerful we cannot speak it!”

You can guess what we call Ronai now.
Here’s a link to Ronai’s Ghana Blog 🙂

Marco and Hannah left and lead most of our group on a “hike” exploring the back roads and visiting the cocoa farm.


Hannah works at the school’s kitchen so she took them on a tour of that too.


Can you imagine cooking for 250 students without an oven or fridge? Love the wheels though, those still make me smile.

I stayed at the hotel because I was anticipating company. Five years ago I took a course through Landmark Education and it really impacted my life. I have since continued taking various courses over the years and one of my Seminar Leaders happens to have a son-in-law who lives in Ghana. I had planned to meet Anthony on Sunday. He lives a good 45 minutes away from where we are staying. Cell signal is hit and miss, but when I finally got ahold of him he told me that his ride had not shown up. We made a new plan to meet in Accra at the airport on Monday night before I fly out. I hope it happens.

Carissa, Pablo, and I sat under a ceiling fan and chatted for a while. Carissa works with The Signing Time Foundation and she coordinates my outreach events when they are partnerships with Instructors in our Signing Time Academy. Since Carissa lives in Portland, it has been nice to sit face-to-face and discuss the evolution of Signing Time and its many offshoots. We’ve been able to chat about upcoming outreach events too. (It looks like I’m coming to Boston MA, Sacramento CA, Portland OR, Peoria IL, and Fremont CA this year. So far.)

When our crew returned, we went up to the school to play with the students.

When we arrived at the school campus the school bus pulled up. The JSS students (middle school) had gone to Accra to attend a deaf church there. They were all dressed in clean white shirts. (How do they keep those whites so white?) Some of the oldest students are now allowed to grow their hair out so that the students at the vocational salon have heads of hair to practice on. Many of the JSS students remembered us from our 2008 visit and “Where’s Alex?” was a frequent question. It’s easy conversing with the JSS students, they are smart and they are getting/understanding their education. Many of them said that they love JSS, and that the Primary School had been boring.

Carissa, who is in an interpreting program, was telling some of the teachers here that some of her teachers, back home, are deaf. They did a double take. They couldn’t imagine deaf teachers being allowed to instruct hearing students. I had never considered how bizarre this would seem to them, since they have deaf teachers at the school, but the deaf teachers here teach deaf students. They asked if there are deaf doctors, deaf accountants or deaf bankers. They asked if the deaf were allowed to drive and how they accomplished that. Of course, Carissa answered all of those questions and the teachers looked back and forth in disbelief.

The high school has expanded and they are working on building more dorms for the students. It has been explained to us that one of the biggest problems in the high school is that even though English is the official language in Ghana, the deaf students are not graduating with enough English proficiency to be accepted at any of the colleges in the US. They are not equipped to realize their dreams of attending Gallaudet or similar universities. Signs of Hope was trying to implement an English program in the high school, but the headmaster there has a very specific way of doing things, and from what I hear, it seems to involves outside organizations first donating large amounts of money in order to bring in any program at all. (Rachel grabs her braids and pulls them in frustration!) This situation will likely persist until there is a change in staff. I JUST HAD AN IDEA!!!! The Primary School and JSS both have programs through SOHI. What if we bring in English programs before high school! What if we could implement an English reading and writing intensive program? (Why do I suddenly envision myself living in Ghana for a good portion of the year?)

In November and December I was doing some soul searching. I was wondering what my life is for. Not a cry for help, mind you, I was just considering 2012 and what problems are worthy of my life. I mean it. Is there a cause that I would die for? Of course I have day-to-day problems like everyone else, like Lucy’s Science Fair Project that’s due the day we get back home.(Eek!) But, honestly, if altering the future for a group of “forgotten” individuals was possible, well, I dare say THAT would be worth living for and worth dying for.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again the plight of many Americans is summed up in one question: Am I happy?
It’s dangerous. We run around in pursuit of happiness and all we need to do is stop running. Hold still. Experience reality. Be grateful. Give something away. Surprise someone else. Be a little kinder. Be a little gentler. Be just a wee bit less judgmental. Be the change we wish to see in the world. Give others the space to have their own beliefs. Let go of the assumption that our point of view is the correct one.

What if peace, love, and happiness is not about more, bigger, and better. What if it’s about disappearing your “self” in service of others?

Signs of Hope comes back to Ghana with volunteers in May…

Tomorrow is Monday. Tomorrow we go home.