So much of the holiday revolves around the familiar sounds of Christmas, yet for hearing impaired children at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, hearing isn't required to enjoy the true meaning of Christmas.Celebrating Christmas is, for these children, just as special as it is to all children, and the intermediate unit on Commerce Boulevard made it all the more special by hosting a holiday party Dec. 22 featuring pizza, presents and - of course - a visit from Santa.
"They don't identify themselves as disabled. They love school and they are treated equally with their hearing peers. The school has embraced them and they have really embraced school," said Heather Robidas, who has been teaching kindergarten through second grade for the past five years.
The intermediate unit provides services to schools all throughout Berks County. The agency, one of 501 statewide, employs approximately 1,200 staff members and exists to provide services and programs that might not be economical or practical for school districts to provide themselves.
The party, attended by about 15 students and their teachers and interpreters, was held in the all-purpose room of the facility including students hailing from Hamburg, Reading and Fleetwood and instructors from throughout the county including Sinking Spring, Boyertown and Oley.
The children ages 6 to 13, who attend Northwest Area Elementary and Southern Middle schools, both in Reading, receive assistance from the intermediate unit. However, most are able to be mainstreamed into a regular classroom environment, dependant upon their academic and learning.
Robidas, from Sinking Spring, is one of many teachers and interpreters who work with the children at Northwest and shared how fulfilling she finds her job.
"You see them really grow and mature and develop, and it is fun," she said.
Another teacher from Northwest, Jennifer Moore of Boyertown, spoke of the joy she gets in working with the children. "It is fun and challenging. I love it. It is very rewarding and they are a great bunch of kids," Moore said.
The agency is called upon to address needs such as special education and other federal, state and local initiatives. Their main goal, however, is to provide leadership and educational services to meet the needs children in the local community.
Teachers and staff employed by the intermediate unit serve the schools on-site. The IU has no supervisory function in the local school districts, but works closely with schools to develop the best programs for students, teachers and parents alike.
Each of the teachers working with these children are fully trained in sign language, the most efficient mode of communication for the students. About eight of the youngest children treated the group at the party to a performance of "Partridge in a Pear Tree," singing and signing while acting out each of the days of Christmas.
The children were full of energy, many with big smiles and big personalities to match. This was especially true for one little six-year-old girl, Victoria "Tori" Johnson, from Fleetwood, who has been deaf as well as blind since birth.
Tori gave her aides a real workout by constantly running around the room, trying to absorb as much as she could. Her mother, Jennifer, said that this is her norm.
"Tori is making great strides. She is a 110 times better than we were told she would be, and I am thankful for early intervention and the progressive therapies she has received," said Johnson.
She attributes much of Tori's progress to hands-on and other types of therapy, such as horse therapy, that she and her husband provided early in Tori's life.
"It was a very aggressive program on our part," Johnson said.
Tori Johnson is only one in 25,000 children born with her developmental impairment. But with the help of her four therapists - one each for speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and vision therapy - provided by the intermediate unit, she is making great progress.
"The program Tori attends [at Northwestern] is the only one in the county. There are team meetings every Tuesday, and there is total communication with the parents," Johnson said.
When Santa arrived the children really lit up. One by one they sat on Santa's lap, both signing as well as telling him of their most desired Christmas day deliveries, including Nintendo Dual Screen's or DS's, Gameboy videogames, a computer, a guitar, and a snow globe. Certified interpreter Debbie Heilman of Oley served as Santa's helper.
Each child received a handful of gifts, courtesy of the Berks Deaf & Hard of Hearing Services, a Reading-based advocacy group serving the deaf, hard of hearing and hearing individuals in Berks and surrounding counties.
The organization offers interpreters, signing classes, client consultation and advocacy when needed. Kandy Reyes, representing the group, handed out the gifts to the children, much to their delight.
As the children sat to watch a movie, Jennifer Johnson, Tori's mother, summed up her sentiments. "Victoria is a blessing," she said. "You learn what's important in life."