Hala Tome still remembers being overtaken with emotion during the first meetings of her two daughters’ Girl Scout troop in Mission Viejo.
It’s Orange County’s only Girl Scout troop that connects through American Sign Language.
“I could not stop crying for the first 30 minutes of every few meetings, it was so overwhelming,” Tome says.
“This troop is the first community I was able to find for my 8 year old daughter,” said Tome of her daughter, Alia.
Within this South County Girl Scout troop, her family found a special sense of community.
“My daughter is profoundly deaf and only uses sign language, it is extremely difficult to find places where she can belong and feel welcome” says Tome, mother to Marya, 6 who is hearing and Alia, 8 who is deaf.
Tome has noticed her daughter’s growing confidence thanks to her participation in Girl Scouts.
“Since my daughter joined the troop she’s learned to be a better advocate for herself by communicating her needs through sign language” she says.
There are about 15,000 girls and 10,000 volunteers and adult members participating in Girl Scouts across Orange County, with Troop 8542, standing as the only troop that is focused for the deaf and hard of hearing.
About a dozen girls who are either Deaf, hard of hearing, along with girls who have a deaf parent or sibling lead the group along with their moms.
By bringing together girls who share similar experiences, the troop is creating a supportive environment where girls who are deaf and hard of hearing can thrive and grow.
Like any other troop, the ASL troop encourages the girls to make friends, find adventure, earn badges and have fun. In addition to these activities, the troop focuses on practicing and learning American Sign Language.
During outings, the troop leaders teach the girls new words to sign according to their surroundings. For instance, when they go to the park, they learn how to sign park, hike, flowers, and rain. When they go to the beach, they learn how to sign water, boat, beach and sun.
Every venture is an opportunity to advance in ASL while enjoying time with friends.
The History of Girl Scouts
Since 1912, Girl Scouts has been empowering and encouraging girls all over the world to be courageous, confident and to make the world a better place.
Juliette Gordon Low, also known as “Daisy” is the founder of Girl Scouts, “the largest and most successful organization for girls in the world” according to the National Women’s History Museum.
She was also deaf.
Unlike the Boys Scouts, which was established with the intention of training young boys for defense and preparedness in case of military invasion, Low created the Girl Scouts at age 51 with the intention of bringing together girls to make a difference in the world and support one another.
Continuing A Legacy of Inclusion
Low’s vision for the Girl Scouts remains as relevant today as it was 111 years ago.
“Juliette Gordon Low profoundly influences me as a leader” says Vikki Shepp the Chief Executive Officer of Girl Scouts of Orange County.
“When we start with a leader who comes from a place like Juliette Gordon Low it infuses everything in the organization, It’s in our DNA” says Shepp.
Shepp has been an integral member of the Girl Scouts team in OC for over a decade, serving in various positions throughout the years.
She currently oversees a budget of around $12 million, manages a team of 150 staff members and works closely with newly 10,000 adult members and active volunteers from every zip code in Orange County, according to the organization.
“I just finished my Doctorate degree from the Rossier School of Education at USC and for my dissertation I looked up how we can serve more girls with exceptionalities in Girl Scouts through Executive support,” Shepp says.
Girl Scouts OC recently brought an inclusion specialist on board to develop solutions for girl scouts with exceptionalities.
“I want every girl to walk into our spaces to feel like, ‘this is a space for me too, I am welcomed here, I belong here, and I’m going to thrive here’” Shepp says as she becomes emotional.
Promoting Access Through Sign Language
Janna Cowper and Alexis “Lexi’ Marman are the troop leaders of the ASL troop, which includes 12 girls, including their own daughters. Their goal is to expose the girls to more deaf culture, representation and American Sign Language.
“Growing up I didn’t have a community and I hope that providing a space for the girls will help them with confidence, accessibility and representation.” says Cowper.
The troop leaders aim for the troop to be a place of representation where the girls can relate to others like themselves and learn about the unique experiences of those who are deaf.
The ASL troop is a diverse group, some of the girls are hearing, others wear hearing aids, some have cochlear implants, others are oral and some only sign.
“In South OC, there really is not a lot of deaf and hard hearing representation. Deaf and hard of hearing kids are often only oral and schools will blend them into mainstream classrooms making it impossible to identify who is deaf and hard of hearing creating a loss of opportunity for deaf and hard of hearing children to engage.” Cowper says.
According to the CDC “About 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears”
“Sign language is access and if you don’t have that access then that’s language deprivation. Having sign language in this troop provides awareness and access” says Cowper.
In fact, according to The American Society of Deaf Children “It’s common that most hearing parents (up to 88%) will never learn American Sign Language (ASL) even though it will benefit their child.
Fostering Support and Connection
“Both my kids are hearing but I am completely Deaf.” Says Marman, co-leader of the ASL troop.
“When I was younger I found photos of a lady cutting my hair and I remember asking my mom who this lady was and why there were so many pictures of us and my mom explained ‘honey, that was the first deaf person we ever met and we thought you could at least support yourself when you were older by cutting hair’ Says Marman.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Marman is an award winning actress, voice actor and TV producer. Additionally, she won the titles of Miss Deaf Cal State Northridge and Miss Deaf California.
“My parents had no one to talk to then, no representation that could help them understand and believe that their child could grow up to be successful” Marman says.
While the troop is exclusively for girls, many parents have their first exposure to Deaf Culture through their daughters’ participation. Deaf Culture pertains to individuals for whom deafness is their primary identity and rely on ASL to communicate.
“More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents” According to the National Association of the Deaf.
“Growing up, I didn’t know any other deaf or hard of hearing people” says Beatriz Godoy, who is hard of hearing herself along with her daughter Paulette,6 who has mild-moderate sensorineural hearing loss and Mia, 10 who is hearing.
“My daughter was the first hard of hearing person I had ever met other than myself and she was diagnosed at 3 and I only started wearing hearing aids a couple months ago” Godoy says.
“There aren’t many parent support groups and having this troop has allowed for the parents to find each other and talk about things like IEPs (Individualized Education Program) and the hearing devices and different language accommodations” says Cowper.
“Both the moms and the girls look forward to this because it’s almost like they finally find a support group that speaks the same language, literally and figuratively.” Marman continues.
A Sense of Belonging
“The deaf community needs socialization as hearing people do. Almost all hearing social groups do not provide accessibility for the deaf community to participate in. Having a social group in ASL is vital for the community.” says Jacinto Contreras, Regional Director of the Orange County Deaf Equal Access Foundation.
OCDeaf organizes a variety of social events for the Deaf community across Orange County.
“Without socialization. Isolation will affect physical and mental health. Lack of socialization without ASL will put them further away from social skills.” explains Contreras.
“Being with peers who are deaf and share the same language and culture is essential to our quality of life,” says Contreras.
Blazing an Accessible Trail
The Girl Scouts’ intake process doesn’t include questions about disability, which means they do not collect data on disability or accommodation needs for their program.
But Girl Scout leaders say inclusion is core to their mission and few exemplify it better than Troop 8542.
“I know there’s a niche of girls who want to be with us, who want to join us and have the experiences of a Girl Scout and we need and want them here with us,” Shepp added, “because we can’t say we are really complete as a council if we are not having representation and opportunities for all girls”
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