This summer, 15 Maine Deaf and hard of hearing youth from 11 different towns began a year-long journey together at Pine Tree Camp. Joshua Seal, director of Interpreting Services at Pine Tree Society, collaborated with Pine Tree Camp to develop and launch the unique Dirigo Experience, designed to empower Deaf and hard of hearing students.
Joshua is Deaf and knows first-hand how isolating it is to grow up not knowing anyone your own age with the same experience.
“I only knew a few people I could communicate with until I turned 18 and went to college,” he recalled. Growing up hard of hearing is equally isolating. “People who are hard of hearing often can only make out the voices of a few people they are close with.”
After months of planning Dirigo Experience, as the campers arrived, Joshua felt an overwhelming sense of pride and excitement.
“It brought tears to my eyes to see the campers connect,” he said.
Many of the campers were fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) but a handful of campers knew just a few signs.
“One young lady arrived not knowing any ASL at all,” Joshua said. “On the first day, she borrowed a book about American Sign Language and, by end of week, was communicating and interacting fluently in ASL.
Learning how to communicate in ASL has changed the course of her future. This visual language opens her world to a broader and greater community filled with more friends and opportunities.”
Pine Tree Camp’s director Dawn Willard-Robinson couldn’t agree more.
“It was amazing to see the transformation she underwent from not using ASL to being fully immersed in the experience. I think that the four kids who came who didn’t use ASL overcame a lot of barriers by learning how to communicate in this new language.”
Pine Tree Society is proud to invest in the future by stepping up to help these young people develop a sense of connection and community now. And Pine Tree Camp was the perfect venue for that to happen.
“We were able to provide them with an intensive outdoor immersion and team-building challenge,” Dawn said. “You can’t go wrong with experiential learning. You learn so much about yourself and what you can do.”
Participants spent time outdoors paddling on North Pond, taking aim in the archery pavilion and navigating the challenge course. They also planned an overnight camping trip, actively taking part in packing, setting up camp and cooking together.
Programming was primarily led by Deaf staff and consisted of a mixture of outdoor leadership activities, team building and facilitated discussions led by experts from Disability Rights Maine Deaf Services, Maine Vocational Rehabilitation, Maine Division for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Late Deafened as well as Teachers of the Deaf.
Students learned about resources such as fl ashing lights for doorbells and fi re alarms and took part in interactive games to develop work skills. Program leaders covered college planning, drivers ed, how to request accommodations and empowered the kids to think about their future and build a foundation for success beyond school.
What makes this program so unique is that the participants in the pilot program have an active voice in shaping the design.
“This program fills a real need,” Dawn said. “So many camps across the country that provide programs for Deaf children have closed and there are only a handful left . To have this group of kids be a part of the process of building and growing the Dirigo Experience is an amazing opportunity for us all.”