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Steps of support
New walkathon supports deaf community

09/06/18



 By Scott Murphy

smurphy@hippopress.com 
 
Concord High School sophomore Grace Leonard is deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other — but that hasn’t kept her from playing varsity field hockey and lacrosse, or being part of a student leadership program called Foundations of Character and Leadership. And it didn’t stop her from creating the first annual NH Hears Walkathon with some help from her dad, Kevin.
The event, which will support services for New Hampshire’s deaf and hard of hearing population, will be held on Sunday, Sept. 16, at 11 a.m. starting in Rollins Park (116 Broadway St., Concord). 
“I thought a family-friendly walkathon would be the best way to bring the most people together, because hearing loss crosses cultural, social, economic and generational lines,” said Leonard, who noted that she’s had to work through daily challenges, such as understanding her teachers in school, locating sounds while playing sports or dealing with background noise in a restaurant. “People can expect a fun event that will bring people together to show support for family and friends with hearing loss.”
 
Breaking down barriers
Proceeds from the walkathon will benefit Northeast Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services in Concord. The nonprofit offers a variety of educational and support services to provide equal access and opportunity for the state’s deaf and hard of hearing community, as well as other populations of people who require assistance to communicate. Specifically, the money raised will benefit the organization’s Education and Resource Center, which supports New Hampshire’s families, organizations, schools and agencies in order to ensure ideal services and accessibility for children who are deaf or hard of hearing.  
Since the nonprofit launched in 2001, the staff has grown from just Executive Director Susan Wolf-Downes to a group ranging from nine to 14 employees throughout the year. Beyond the general struggles of starting a new organization, Wolf-Downes said she and her employees have worked to raise awareness and support for a community that had been largely underserved. She described Northeast Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services as New Hampshire’s “one stop resource for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, their families and friends.” 
Though the nonprofit offers services to individuals of all ages, a particular emphasis is placed on supporting children and families during key developmental years. Wolf-Downes went to a residential deaf school growing up, and she said the ability to socialize with peers who also were identified with hearing loss was invaluable.
“Deaf people want to be able to relate to one another,” said Wolf-Downes, who had a sign language interpreter during the interview. “Socializing with friends is an important part of life, and it can be lonely being the only deaf child in a school with 500 students. This is what is happening in New Hampshire. You will often find school districts with only one child who is deaf or hard of hearing where they do not have similar peers.” 
 
Central services in a rural state
One of the challenges the nonprofit faces is New Hampshire’s lack of a centralized educational organization that coordinates assistance for deaf and hard of hearing students in the state’s school districts. Though Wolf-Downes believes a shift to a centralized model is on the horizon, the nonprofit now focuses on providing as much assistance as it can at each stage of a child’s transition into the public school system. 
The organization’s Education and Resource Center collaborates with the state’s division of Family-Centered Early Supports and Services and other service agencies across the state to support families and their deaf or hard of hearing children from when they are identified as being deaf or hard of hearing until they’re three years old. However, once they transition into preschool and kindergarten, the organization is focused on assisting schools with developing Individualized Education Programs to fit students’ needs. 
“During this transition, the whole team working with a child typically changes as they go through the process of determining eligibility for special education services,” said Pamela Lovejoy, the center’s deaf and hard of hearing early intervention specialist and teacher of the deaf. “In a short period of time, kids go from working in a home-based, family-centered environment to being in a student-centered environment.”
Both Lovejoy and Wolf-Downes said ensuring a smooth transition and effective early development is important, especially in a rural state like New Hampshire. Wolf-Downes said there are larger deaf and hard of hearing populations in cities like Concord, Manchester, Nashua and Portsmouth, due to a broader network of support services for work, education and transportation being available within an immediate or commutable distance. But the nonprofit works with deaf and hard of hearing people across the state in a variety of settings. 
“In rural areas, it can be very isolating to be deaf or hard of hearing,” said Wolf-Downes. “We provide services that help people break down barriers and make their lives better.” 





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