May 112009

Like so many of their peers, five college students at RIT/NTID spent their spring break flying to a tropical country. But they weren’t relaxing on a beach and partying each night.

Instead, Sofia Siliezar, Christopher Samp, Stephanie Pizzo, Stephen Persinger and Peter Csiszar traveled to the Central American country of Guatemala to learn more about the culture there, spend time in schools that teach deaf children and offer ideas to help young deaf residents in the region.

The students are members of Global Reach Out (GRO), a non-profit organization formed two years ago to encourage deaf youth from around the world to address social issues that limit the potential of deaf persons. It was hoped that the visitors and those they visited learn from one another and inspire others.

“Many deaf people in developing countries do not have access to education and do not see successful deaf role models,” said Tamer Mahmoud, an NTID Pre-College Outreach Specialist who helped plan the trip. “We want to show that if we can do it here, they can do it there too.”

The students spent about $1,200each to pay for their trip.
They learned the sign for Guatemala is two fingers and a thumb on one hand sitting on the side of a lower hand. The three fingers represent the quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala with two long tail feathers. The feathers were actually used as currency there many years ago.

Their trip – the first week of March – was a homecoming of sorts for Siliezar, who was born deaf in Guatemala. But she became frustrated with few educational options for deaf students there. “Deaf people can’t realize their dreams. I wanted to get an education and a good job.” Her family moved when she was 13 so she could attend high school in the U.S.

“I wanted to go back to my country to let them know they can’t give up,” she said. “They never had that opportunity to meet deaf people from outside the country.”

While in Guatemala, the students focused on two areas that the locals suggested: education and employment. They visited four schools, including an oral school that told the visitors not to sign in front of their deaf students. The principal, who had been working for 45 year, told them the spoken language was beautiful.

“I think speaking and signing both are beautiful,” Persinger said.

The visitors also noticed a lack of interpreters. Most children don’t have interpreters in school.

“In Guatemala, they don’t pay their interpreters,” Siliezar said. “There may be two or three available in the country.”

She said more options exist for deaf children in Guatemala now than when she lived there. During their visit, they met a deaf woman who graduated from college – the first deaf woman to do so there. They also met a deaf painter, a deaf businessman and a deaf karate instructor.

After meeting with the locals to learn about their culture, the students help workshops in attempts at finding solutions to problems there. The suggested establishing resource centers to help deaf students build resumes and look for jobs, finding interpreters who could help the students communicate with potential employers and developing networking opportunities for them.

Better vocational training would also help deaf students gain employment.

And encouraging families with deaf children to learn to communicate with them would help support deaf children.

“Teach parents there is no limit to what their kids can do,” Csiszar said.
Their visit was very unique for deaf educators and parents of deaf children in Guatemala because many had not been exposed to the workshop ideas in the past.

“They wanted to learn from us and pass it along to the younger children,” Siliezar said.

The trip wasn’t all business. The students still found time to climb a volcano in Pacaya, battled cold hotel rooms and struggled to find cat-free accommodations.

Csiszar took a side trip to Tikal. “This place is in the middle of a jungle – where the Mayan old-time civilization was, with temples. It was really amazing with all the trees and monkeys. I was warned they have jaguars around there but no fences or anything.”

They stayed in Antigua, a city where Spanish explorers first settled in Guatemala.

Samp, a public policy major, said he “found it amazing that they government works differently than we do here. Their tax system is different. People make most of their own clothes and grow most of their food. I saw how they can survive without the government’s help.”
Persinger said he noticed that Guatemalans are very appreciative of what they have, even if they are poor by our standards. “It was a good experience to see,” he said. “It makes you realize how lucky we are here in the United States.”

“All the deaf people we met in Guatemala wanted us to come back,” Siliezar said. “They were saying, ‘Please, please, we need your help. Just a week is not enough.’ ”

Siliezar, who is keeping in touch with her new friends via email and Facebook, plans to lead another GRO trip to Guatemala in November 2010.

Mahmoud said plans are underway to have GRO students visit Kenya and possibly India later this year.

“Who knows what other countries we can explore,” he said.

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– NTID News – May 10, 2009 –