BRANDON – Kevin Combs was the master of ceremonies at Brandon High School for “A Very Special Holiday Program,” for school children in the deaf and hard of hearing programs at various schools throughout Hillsborough County School District.
The Brandon High sophomore said he learned as a youngster that one day he would be deaf, having been diagnosed, “at age 5 or 7,” with the same hereditary and progressive hearing loss as his father, who learned of the same condition at a similar age.
“The biggest misperception would be that people who are deaf or hard of hearing are a step back from other people,” Combs said backstage Dec. 20, before the first of 15 performances from 11 schools took to the stage. “It’s how I am. I’m resigned to it. I feel like [my progressive deafness] is an obstacle that just needs a different perspective to traverse.”
How well students in similar situations are doing just that was self-evident in the talent from Alonso, Brandon, Lennard, Robinson and Spoto high schools; Burnett and Ben Hill middle schools; and Colson, Doby, Lake Magdalene and Morgan Woods elementary schools.
“The kids love it because they see children they’ve known since preschool,” said Diane Dunphy, a teacher at Ben Hill Middle School. “They share the same language, they share the same stories, even as they [grow up and are assigned] to other schools.”
“I’ve always been fascinated with deafness,” added Ali Lambert, also a teacher at Ben Hill, who said she taught herself sign language in college after meeting a deaf girl in class. “The language is beautiful, how it flows. The facial expressions, the gestures, what you’re doing with your hands and your whole body. Conceptual accuracy is key.”
Reese Garcia is a fourth-grader in the deaf and hard of hearing program at Colson Elementary School. He played the role of the Grinch in Colson’s staging of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” directed by teachers Jessica Buchs and Olivia Williams.
“I like to be the Grinch,” Garcia said. “I like the longer lines and it’s a cool character. He’s evil and he steals the presents and then he becomes nice. I’m really excited to see my old friends here.”
The annual holiday program is also a chance for teachers and interpreters to reconnect with students and colleagues they worked with at other schools. Such is the case for Coleen Bentson, an interpreter at Brandon, who over the past 17 years also worked at Colson, Burnett and Newsome High School. She wrote the script for Combs and signed his words to the audience.
“Sign language was my first language,” Bentson said. “My father was deaf and my mother was hard of hearing. For me it was a natural transition into becoming a school interpreter.”
Like Combs, she said it is important to realize the unique abilities of each child, regardless of their challenges.
“Don’t feel sorry for the deaf, they’re as normal as any other kid,” Bentson said. “With love and guidance, as it is for every kid, they can be just as successful as anyone else.”
At the program each year the graduating seniors are recognized. This year, there were 28 seniors, collectively representing Alonso, Brandon, East Bay, Hillsborough, Leto, Newsome, Plant, Riverview, Steinbrenner and Strawberry Crest high schools. Kiele Marston from Plant High School was presented the $500 senior scholar award, given in honor of Kathleen N. Siers, who taught the deaf in Hillsborough schools. It was presented posthumously by her husband, Joe, and her granddaughter, Caitlyn. Siers, 52, of Wesley Chapel, died in 2012.