Camp counselor Connor Sullivan can relate to the children at his summer camp. Like them, Sullivan is deaf.
“I was one of these kids,” Sullivan said. “For a long time, I was the only kid I knew with hearing aids.”
Sullivan, 19, was born mostly deaf but wasn't diagnosed until age 4. He attended speech therapy for years and was a camper at the Hearts for Hearing summer camp. During Christmas break this year, he received a cochlear implant that allows him to hear.
When he returned to camp this year as a volunteer, he wanted to show the children that deafness doesn't have to stop them, he said.
“It's kind of like peer pressure, but in a positive way,” said Sullivan, a University of Oklahoma student. “They need to see that you can turn out positive. The students need to see that this is possible.”
The 10th annual Hearts for Hearing summer camp is designed to help about 40 children practice hearing and speech. Hearts for Hearing is a nonprofit health care provider that helps children and adults develop their hearing and speech skills.
All the summer campers are deaf or nearly deaf, but they don't use sign language. They speak like their hearing peers, said Lindsay Hanna, a speech therapist and the camp director.
“There's a stigma that these children with hearing loss use sign language,” Hanna said.
Campers are age 5 to midteens, and volunteers are mostly graduates of the program.
The children have either hearing aids, cochlear implants or one of each. Some have used the aids since birth, while some have developed hearing loss later in life and are still adjusting to using the new technology, Hanna said.
The goal is to encourage the students and catch any lingering or creeping speech problems that might crop up during the summer months, Hanna said.
“Every child can learn to listen and talk,” Hanna said.
The trick is to give the students as many experiences as possible so they can be exposed to all kinds of words and sounds, said Darcy Stowe, a speech therapist.
For example, the students make a group art project every year. This year, they're making a collage together in a single classroom. It's a noisy environment with so many children.
They have to practice listening to one another, said Kris Taylor, Hearts for Hearing development director.
“Everything's intentional,” Taylor said. “It only looks like fun.”
The camp visits the Oklahoma City Museum of Art every summer. But Chandra Boyd, senior associate curator of education, said she wanted the partnership to go beyond that. This year, the museum is hosting the camp, and Boyd has helped to connect the group with other downtown agencies and organizations.
Boyd said she hopes it sparks an interest in art among the children.
“If they feel like this is a place where they belong, hopefully they'll come back,” she said.
Christopher Lee, a 7-year-old from Edmond, said he loves the art museum and all of the camp activities, especially the group art project.
The students received free books from the Oklahoma City Thunder, learned a dance routine from the Thunder Girls, visited City Hall and visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.
Christopher said nobody makes fun of him for his cochlear implants. His friends think they're cool.
Heaven Autrey, a 6-year-old from Oklahoma City, said nobody's ever teased her about her hearing aid and cochlear implant, either. In fact, her best friend thinks they're really cool.
“She likes to play with them,” she said, laughing. “Yeah, I know.”
Both Christopher and Heaven said they love spending a week every summer with their friends at the camp.
“You get to see your friends again,” Christopher said.