Caroline Creech is thriving at 2 ½ years old, talking in complete and understandable sentences — a major accomplishment for a child born unable to hear.
Mom Kristen and Caroline were both part of Sound Start’s Mommy and Me program when Caroline was 20 months old. This allowed Caroline time to acclimate to a classroom setting while her mother was present. When Caroline turned 2 in February, she was enrolled in the Sound Start program.
Sound Start, a part of the Savannah Speech and Hearing Center, is an auditory/oral deaf preschool for children to pursue a listening and speaking track without the use of sign language or an interpreter.
Children as young as 2 can be enrolled. They must be wearing hearing aids or have cochlear implants. All the children are in class from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. focusing on speech and language skills. They must turn 3 years old before they can also attend the afternoon session, which is pre-academic, according to Sound Start Program Director Tracy Edenfield, who is also the teacher. Students can stay in the program up until 6 years of age.
Caroline got bilateral cochlear implants (one for each ear) at age 8 months in Jacksonville, Fla. The family lives in Guyton, and Kristen Creech said they would have had to wait until her daughter was 12 months old to have the implants in Savannah. That’s why they didn’t know about the local Sound Start program until Edenfield approached them when she saw them at a local restaurant.
Having hearing aids or cochlear implants is not a simple answer for people who start life without the ability to hear.
“It is not like you put it on and all of a sudden they know what they are hearing,” said Edenfield. “They have to build their language development. They learn receptive skills first and expressive skills second. Just like an infant.”
The seven students now at Sound Start attend for 10 ½ months, then continue with speech therapy for about six weeks before starting back into the program in August.
“They’ve lost time for that language development,” Edenfield said of the children. “It takes all that time for many of the students to develop age-appropriate language.”
Students come from Chatham, Effingham, Bryan and Liberty counties and from South Carolina. The closest programs similar to Sound Start are in Atlanta or Jacksonville, Fla.
The school is licensed by Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. The licensure enables Sound Start to provide services for children from 2 to 6 years old and to keep students above 3 years old for a full day’s program, according to the Sound Start website.
Former student Cecelia “Ceci” Flannigan has all the confidence in the world for a 13-year-old in seventh grade. She and her mother agree that this is a reflection of Ceci’s early classes at Sound Start.
Ceci was born deaf. At 18 months, she had her first bilateral cochlear implants, which allowed her to hear for the first time. She began the local Sound Start program when she was 5, having been in a similar program in Illinois before her family’s move to the South.
Ceci’s mother Erin knows the importance of an auditory/oral school.
“We had just relocated to South Carolina,” Erin Flannigan said, “and there was no program for her where we lived. I was on the hunt to find something for her and was actually looking to get her into an auditory/oral school in Atlanta.”
There were no openings there, so she went online and found Sound Start in Savannah, she said. After touring the school, she immediately registered Ceci and moved to Tybee Island. Ceci now attends Chatham Academy.
Parents need to be involved in the program, Edenfield said.
“There are more potential students we could serve in our community,” Edenfield said. “For the child to be successful, the parent must help with language development homework and speech goals. It is a continuous process encouraging the student to learn inside and outside the classroom.”
Tuition is based on a sliding scale per the family’s ability to pay, Edenfield said. The center is always looking for funding, including grants, to help reduce tuition.
Homework activities could take 30 minutes a night, depending on the child.
“We try to ask them to do 10 minutes, walk away, 10 minutes, walk away. Each part has nothing to do with the other part. Pre-reading, penmanship, language development, vocabulary, speech skills. It’s so many different things, if you try to cram it all into one sitting, it doesn’t work,” she said.
An example is when they are riding in a car, the child says cow. Then the parent can ask, “What about the cow?”
“It is a teachable moment — any time you can grab one, there is time for exchange,” she said.
Kristen Creech has elected to bring Caroline to class three or four days a week, because it is a 40-minute drive from Guyton and because she has a 2-month-old, Katherine, who also was born deaf.
“I’m always working with her on speech and finding those teachable moments,” Creech said of Caroline.
“For us, it was never an option for her to not have the implants. We pursued implants. Without the implants, I don’t see her being able to go to a mainstream school. We were both hearing parents, clueless with what to provide her with to go to a mainstream school.”
Edenfield said 90 percent of babies born deaf have hearing parents.
“Tracy and the speech therapist say that Caroline is on track to be in a (mainstream) pre-K when she turns 4,” Creech said.
Sound Start is on the campus of Calvary Day School. At first glance, the classroom looks like any other preschool program, Edenfield said.
“However, if you observe, you will see we focus on listening by developing auditory skills using the speech screen, which conceals our mouth and encourages less of a reliance on lip reading and facial cues. The students have auditory devices, FM systems, hearing aids and cochlear implants.”
The FM system diminishes external sounds like the air conditioner so the student can focus on targeted speech sounds. The teacher speaks into a microphone and the student’s hearing aid or cochlear implant is programmed to recieve this direct speech sound.
There are two teacher’s aides. Also, volunteers come from Armstrong State University’s speech program. These people can give more time to a student who might be struggling, Edenfield said.
For students from Armstrong, she said, “It’s two-fold. They are learning in this environment and they are also contributing to this environment.
“This is not what you would see with normal developing language with hearing children as you would see in a K-4 or K-5 program,” she said. The focus is on language, listening and speech and “includes social skills, which also have to be taught.”
“If we finish the K-4 or K-5 classes, we ask them to repeat the K-5 in a public school setting, where the dynamics are different. They have one or two teachers in a class of about 20 kids,” Edenfield said.
When Caroline started at Sound Start, she could speak about 30 words.
“Now she talks in normal 2-year-old sentences,” Kristen Creech said. “A speech therapist works with her twice a week and her speech is very clear. She talks in full sentences now. You’d never know she was born deaf.”
The children are not bored in class, she said. “The teachers make it such a fun environment for the kids. You can see how much fun they are having on all of their faces .
“As a mom, you don’t want your child to feel left out and different than all the kids around you. They don’t have any limits even if they have a disability.”
As parents to a 4-year-old son with normal hearing, she said it was hard to learn their two daughters were deaf.
“Now I know what to do. I’m still a little stressed about it, but I know that (Katherine) will be OK just like Caroline.”
Ceci was in the program for three years and said it made her life today easier. “It helped me be able to listen to teachers and do better with my schoolwork. It helped me learn to talk and listen to my family and friends.”
In a video produced in 2013 found on the Speech and Hearing Center’s website, with a big smile Ceci tells viewers she can hear ocean waves.
Today, Ceci is involved in sports in both school and private organizations, her mother said.
“She plays on teams for flag football, soccer, basketball and lacrosse. She absolutely loves sports. When she was a student at Tybee Maritime Academy, where she went for elementary school, she was also involved in Drama Club and was a member of the Tybee Island Youth Council.”
Sound Start helped Ceci immensely, her mother said. “She received so much one-on-one attention at Sound Start, and everyone there really devoted their time and energy into preparing her to mainstream (at school).
“. Sound Start and everyone there gave her a sense of confidence in talking and speaking. They even helped Cecilia build her confidence in who she is.
“She is not afraid of really anything, loves to talk and express herself, and is one of the most confident 13-year-olds I think I’ve ever met.”