“I started the program back in 2002 because babies were being identifed (with hearing loss) very early and families needed to have other families to meet and to know where to go and get resources,” Geiken told The Compass during a break from the playgroup Feb. 28. “It’s also a chance (for children) to meet other children who have hearing loss.”
Nearly 30 children who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as their siblings, take part in the playgroup, which is offered most Monday evenings throughout the year. In addition to the Monday playgroup, eight-week conversational sign language classes are available for the hearing community and a “Roots-N-Wings” class, for children 6 and older, allows the playgroup children to continue building sign language skills.
When she is not working with children, Geiken visits local organizations to talk about hearing loss and the importance of early intervention for babies with hearing loss. She also coordinates a “Parent and Community Education” program where guest speakers meet with families.
“We have people coming in throughout the state who talk about either hearing loss or to talk about insurance like Social Security benefits and BadgerCare and how it relates to children with disabilities,” she said.
The non-profit group receives support from Bay Care Clinic, the Green Bay Packers and the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation.
The program’s partnership with St. John the Evangelist Parish was a natural one, said Susan Perrault, director of faith formation. The parish is home to the diocese’s outreach to the deaf community. Signed liturgies are held at the church each weekend.
“The program and its support of families raising deaf and hard of hearing children meshed so well with the mission statement of the St. John the Evangelist,” said Perrault.
“When the parish renovated the (school) building, in addition to considering the needs of the homeless shelter, Martinson Architects put extra time and effort into planning with Jenny and her families, working on accommodations that would benefit the program … as well as children with special needs such as walkers or wheelchairs,” added Perrault.
She said that the parish has embraced the work of Geiken, and members of the parish deaf community are involved there as volunteers. Hearing parishioners have also taken American Sign Language classes offered at the school.
“It’s been a win-win-win-win relationship for the families served by the program, for our parish, for the greater Green Bay area as well as parishes throughout the diocese,” said Perrault. “Some of the families now worship at St. John’s; others have referred their hometown parish staff to us for consultations and assistance in accommodating their children in faith formation programs and Sunday liturgies in their own parishes.”
Before starting Hand-N-Hand, Geiken was a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing. She holds a deaf education teaching certificate from UW-Milwaukee.
“When I was teaching in the little school districts, there were one or two children with a hearing impairment and families didn’t know any other kids with a hearing loss,” she said. “So I thought, ‘What is that family going to do? They need to see that they are not alone.'”
She focuses on children 5 and under because they lack interaction with others facing hearing loss.
“When children turn 5, they are in kindergarten and they have that opportunity to socialize with other kids who have hearing loss,” she explained. “At age zero and up to school age, there’s nothing out there. There are no social programs for children with hearing loss that offer them the opportunity to see other kids just like themselves; for families to learn how to support their children; to meet other families with similar developing needs.
Geiken counts on the assistance of volunteers who help her manage the classroom sessions. “We have high school students, as well as interpreter training students from the technical college, that come in and they can get service hours for working in the classroom,” she said. Also attending the sessions are parents, siblings and even grandparents.
For more information on programs and activities available at Hand-N-Hand, visit their Web site, www.hnh new.org.