There were field games, kids lounging on sheets in the shade, and a tasty lunch, but for members of the Polk County Public Schools Deaf Culture Club, Thursday’s event was much more than your typical springtime picnic.
“I’d like to show the younger kids that they can do whatever they want to,” said Kristina Rodriguez, a senior at Lakeland High School, through her interpreter.
After graduation, Rodriguez will study biology at Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University, which serves deaf and hard-of-hearing students. She plans to work in the medical field one day.
“The children here need to learn that we can be successful as deaf people. We can follow any path we set for ourselves.”
For 28 years, PCPS has hosted the annual Deaf Culture Club picnic. Eighty students representing 10 schools attended this year’s event at Fletcher Park at Lake Bonny in Lakeland. They played with hula-hoops and flew kites, but organizers say the picnic is much more than fun and games.
“It gives the students access to role models. Children with hearing loss don’t see many others like them, but here, they get to see other people just like them being successful,” said Pamela Moore, who teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Southwest Middle School.
“It makes them say to themselves, ‘I can do that. I can graduate from high school and go to college.’”
The picnic also serves as a shared experience that builds students’ background knowledge, community connections and vocabulary as they communicate with new people, said Lakeland High School teacher Kathy Jackson.
Jackson’s students, all of whom are deaf or hard-of-hearing, organize the annual picnic, which teaches them lessons in leadership and teamwork.
Lakeland’s First Aviation Sertoma Club has sponsored PCPS’ Deaf Culture Club since 1993.
“The picnic allows kids to see they’re not isolated,” said Gary Thomas, club president. “It shows them they’re not the only kids who have issues with hearing or speech, and it allows them to socialize with kids who have similar issues.”
The high-schoolers and adults have their takes, but second-grader Payton Krebs, who attends Chain of Lakes Elementary, may have described the picnic’s importance best when she signed to her interpreter:
“If you don’t meet new friends, you will be alone and sad,” Krebs said.
The Deaf Culture Club also gathers at Halloween and prior to winter break. For more information on the school district’s services for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, visit polkschoolsfl.com/ese/dhh.