Milton Pakmen Volleyball Club in Tune with the Deaf Community

By DAVID WINER

We all have a desire to belong.

Even the most fiercely independent person craves company at some point in time.

After all, the opposite of belonging, is incomprehensible.

Shunned, excluded, ostracized…these are not predicaments any of us ever want to face. That’s why the expression, “Join the club,” resonates with so many of us. Sometimes, when we’re feeling down, it’s nice to know you’re in company, and not alone in your time of need.

Recently, three deaf children ‘joined the club,’ the Milton Pakmen volleyball club to be precise, to participate in its Spikes beginners’ program. The experience for everyone involved has been so successful, at least three more deaf youngsters are signed up to join the next program.

“We sent out flyers to all of the schools in Milton, and a specific one for E.C. Drury (School for the Deaf) students that included a section showcasing the coaches that would support communication with deaf players,” explained Milton Pakmen head coach Matt Dietz.

With Kathie Russell and Sarah Fredricks on board as facilitators/coaches the children would join a warm, hospitable environment, designed to place the deaf children on an equal footing with the hearing when it came to learning.

“We know that number will double, at least, for our spring program,” confirmed Dietz. “If the number of deaf players grows considerably, we may consider an all-deaf time-slot. However currently, it has become an enriching program for all players and coaches who have taken a greater interest in learning sign language and who have grown as people developing tolerance and acceptance.

“The idea came about at a coaches meeting,” explained Dietz, “where we realized we had the ability to provide a great program for deaf players since we already had teachers from E.C. Drury actively involved within the club.

“The program has gone fantastically! The deaf players are young, as are their hearing teammates in the Spikes program, and they are just learning the game. With our great coaches, who sign instructions for the deaf players, they are able to pick up technical cues and tips just as every other player does.

“They leave with big smiles on their faces and giant high fives for players and coaches alike!”

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Any time parents see their children leaving sporting activities with broad smiles, it’s a positive. When that child is deaf, a better depiction might be heartwarming.
Four out of every 1,000 children in Canada are born with some degree of hearing loss. And chances are, they will grow up experiencing some form of rejection, whether intended, or not.

Perhaps that is why parents of the participating deaf children were delighted with the rare opportunity posed by the Pakmen.

“The biggest reason why we joined is because there was ASL (American Sign Language) provided,” said Sarah Goure, the mother of 6-year-old Wyatt. “That’s a big bonus!

“I know Wyatt feels more comfortable when there’s more than one deaf kid in the same program,” added Sarah. “The more the merrier. They are pretty comfortable with one another because of the communication part.

“If he was the only (deaf child), he would probably feel the anxiety just because he is not able to communicate with others or understand what is being said. I am a deaf parent, too, and I would feel the exact same way. So with other deaf kids, they can communicate and know they are not alone. Having Kathie and Sarah part of the program is a huge, huge bonus! I would probably not have him signed up if it wasn’t for them. But because of them, Wyatt is able to really understand how to play, rather than taking a wild guess at what he is supposed to do by following others. (Following that direction) he would always be one step behind.”

Sarah adds that Wyatt loves sports and she wants him to participate in as many athletic endeavors as possible. One of Wyatt’s biggest heroes, according to Sarah, is National Football League defensive star, JJ Watt of the Houston Texans, “because of his confidence and positive approach outside the NFL.

“Wyatt also loves Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays because of his commitment and talent, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. of NASCAR because of his strategic skills in racing.”

But Wyatt’s biggest hero remains his dad Andrew, who like Sarah, is also deaf. Like so many others in the deaf community, Andrew Goure chose to become self employed after being turned down “for over 200 jobs in a year,” with a communication barrier the likely cause for most rejections.

“I would say my husband is Wyatt’s hero,” says Sarah. “He really looks up to him knowing that he fights for his rights and he doesn’t let his confidence go down. Wyatt is very motivated to learn how to adapt to the hearing world and to excel in education and sports.

“Our family loves sports so much that we always want to be able to play in any sports,” added Sarah. “Whether it be a hearing or deaf league. It is definitely a great experience, maybe a confidence booster.”

Sarah’s inclusion of the word ‘maybe’ is in reference to some of Wyatt’s mixed sojourns into mainstream leagues.

“In Milton, we know that we have so many great sports programs among the community, yet, they are still not educated about deafness.”
Sarah says Wyatt often finds himself staring in space while huddled with his teammates unable to hear, nor comprehend, what the coach is instructing the players. Wyatt often waits for a tap on his shoulder, or a body gesture, from the coach to feel included.

“In the last three years we have participated in many sports,” explained Sarah, “and only one of the five coaches really approached Wyatt to explain what he could do, such as ‘run, catch’ or if he’s next in line. What this coach did was the littlest thing, but the biggest thing to us. My son literally gained his confidence and wanted to play more.”

Goure is both impressed and thankful for the work of coaches Zane Mistry and Brian Cheong, and “grateful” to Mistry’s wife Mirjana, who would “always come to us to tell us what’s happening before they told the rest of the parents, so that we were never the last to know.”

Goure just wishes she wouldn’t have to constantly remind coaches to make a better effort to communicate.

“But, if we want to avoid that, then all coaches should be able to acknowledge different communication approaches towards deaf kids rather than to stand and speak with a bland expression expecting that everyone will be listening.”
Which brings us back to Russell, who is volunteering her services to the Milton Pakmen, and Fredricks, who is a second-year coach with the club. Both teachers at E.C. Drury, Russell has taken on the responsibility of interpreter/facilitator.

“She is amazing,” says Dietz of Russell, whose son Connor is a hearing member of the Spikes program.

“I volunteer my time so that the deaf kids have an opportunity to participate in the Spikes program just like my hearing son,” explained Russell.

“As a deaf person, with a little bit of hearing, I would consider myself more of a facilitator,” added Russell. “What I mean by that, is I listen, and sometimes lipread, and relay that information to the kids at an age appropriate level. I also do a little bit of one-to-one coaching because I stay with the kids in their group and I have some background experience with volleyball.”

Giving the students at E.C. Drury access to sports is vital. Currently, opportunities to participate in athletics is limited to some intramural dodgeball during the lunch hour for the elementary-aged children, and annual tournaments for the school’s 70 secondary-aged students against the two other deaf schools in Ontario.

“We play the other provincial schools in a tournament that happens once a year,” explained Russell. “Belleville hosts volleyball in the fall, Milton hosts ball hockey, and London or Brantford, a school for the deaf and blind, hosts swimming.

“We also get invited to an invitational soccer tournament at New York State School for the Deaf in Rome, NY and a basketball tournament at Northern Secondary School, that has a deaf program within the school. Meanwhile, the elementary kids get invited to handball at what was once called Metro Toronto School for the Deaf.”

While Russell insists the opportunities are there, it solely depends on the child’s “comfort level.”

“Some deaf children are fine without an interpreter and ‘get by’, and some prefer to have access to all information. And sometimes, that means the need to have an interpreter, or better yet, have the coach and team members use sign
language.”

Opportunities to play sports and represent teams were greater when E.C. Drury had both hearing and deaf students, but since the opening of the neighboring Craig Kielburger Secondary School in 2012, those opportunities have shrunk.
Add the fact that many of E.C. Drury’s students’ days are already lengthy, having to be bused in from Hamilton, Kitchener, Guelph, Brampton and Mississauga, and the options become even more limited.

Plus, adds Russell, there’s the cost of $50 an hour to hire a certified interpreter.

“Many times organizations do not want to pay for (an interpreter) or (they) give the deaf person a hard time,” said Russell, who has her own share of experiences, including an occasion when she wanted to take a weekend wilderness first-aid course, but was not granted an interpreter.

“After several emails back and forth regarding my human rights to an interpreter, it got no where. I felt my time was wasted trying to educate this person to my rights.

“Instead of focusing on the negatives,” added Russell, “let’s focus on the positives – that Pakmen has provided this opportunity for deaf children to become involved with the assistance of a volunteer (me) to facilitate communication.”

Listening to Russell’s muddied travels through deaf lane, it’s no wonder the deaf community takes such great pride in its pioneers. Those who made an impact on the hearing world, as well as those who improved life for the deaf. Such heroes as Thomas Edison and Ludwig van Beethoven are honored and remembered in the school curriculum at E.C. Drury.

“ASL is offered as a language of study as well as Deaf Studies, which covers the language, culture and folklore, which includes famous deaf athletes, artists, politicians, and other prominent deaf community members.

“Some examples off the top of my head would be Terence Parkin, a deaf swimmer from South Africa who won the silver medal in 2000 Olympics; Matt Hamill, a UFC fighter who has a movie about him; Derrick Coleman, first deaf American football player to win the Super Bowl; James Kyte, a Canadian, who played for the (NHL’s) Winnipeg Jets.

“There’s also the Deaflympics where numerous deaf athletes participate (in both winter and summer games) at an international level,” said Russell, who herself was a volleyball player at the 2001 Rome Deaflympics, followed by stints as Canada’s Chef de Mission in 2005 (Melbourne), 2007 (Utah) and 2009 (Taipei).

“We have quite a few deaf people from Ontario who have participated.”

That would include Julia Wolff, Annie Lau, Kayla Morden and Kristin Dressler, who were all members of Canada’s Deaflympics women’s volleyball team that competed in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2013. As an example of how tight the deaf community is, Dressler is actually a cousin of Russell’s and a graduate of E.C. Drury, while Morden is a former student of hers.

Before the 1920’s, there weren’t any Games for the disabled. But the creation of the International Silent Games in 1924 (now the Deaflympics) by founder Eugene Rubens-Alcais of France, made a huge impact on the deaf community. He envisioned bringing athletes together for competition and social and cultural interaction.

Now, there is a long list of sports offered at both the Winter and Summer Deaflympics, which is sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee, and includes participants from 77 nations.

Now talented deaf athletes compete in alpine skiing, athletics, badminton, basketball, beach volleyball, bowling, cross-country skiing, curling, cycling, cricket, football, handball, ice hockey, judo, karate, orienteering, shooting, snowboarding, skibob, swimming, table tennis, tae kwon do, tennis, volleyball, water polo, and wrestling.

Unfortunately, Canada’s representation “has always been small in numbers,” according to Russell, perhaps partially due to competitors, once selected, having to pay $3,000 towards the trip, while the Canadian Deaf Sports Association contributes the other half.

“So the trip to Australia cost $6,000,” recalled Russell, “Which included airfare, accommodation, meals, team attire, transportation to the venues, etc. The athletes paid $3,000 (either out of pocket or from their sponsors), CDSA paid the other $3000 with funding from Sports Canada, telemarketing, and the government.”

Another graduate of E.C. Drury is Fredricks. A hearing student at school before Craig Kielburger Secondary School was created, Fredricks’ introduction into the deaf community came at an early age, “and because of that experience, I am where I am today.

“Growing up in Milton was a major (reason for) my interest in the deaf community. I played softball with two girls that are deaf, which was my first interaction with anyone from the community.”
Then, soon after, Fredricks attended E.C. Drury, “where I was able to interact socially and take courses.”

After completing ASL 1 and 2, Fredricks followed up with a co-op placement at the elementary school in her last year. With her mind made up on continuing her work in the deaf community, Fredricks chose Keuka College in New York State.

“I decided on Keuka for numerous reasons,” she explains. “I was able to take the program I wanted (American Sign Language – English Interpreting), while playing both competitive softball and volleyball. And before returning to E.C. Drury as an elementary teacher, and as a coach of the Milton Pakmen, Fredricks earned here Bachelor of Education degree at Brock University.
It’s her association with E.C. Drury and the Pakmen, that makes Fredricks a perfect liaison between the two sides.

“There aren’t a lot of sports clubs accessible to the deaf community,” said Fredricks. “That’s what makes our program so unique. Having Kathie there to support (the program) is a blessing. We are so lucky to have her with us. Matt also plays a huge role in support of the staff. There has been positive feedback thus far, and with awareness, we can spread the word and hopefully have more deaf players join!”

“Sarah is amazing,” said Dietz of the second-year teacher and coach, “she attended E.C. Drury and met and made many friends in the deaf community, which is a huge reason she got into the profession of teaching the deaf. She signs as she coaches and understands the deaf culture so well – helping us create this terrific opportunity!”

On a typical Saturday Spikes get-together, “the three players are normally placed in the same group for ease of communication,” explained Fredricks.
“We are so lucky to have Kathie there as a facilitator to the children,” she added. “With her experience, knowledge of the sport, and personality, it really allows the program to run smoothly.

“I tend to stick around that group, but at times, I am stationed as a coach at a specific skill (location). At (other) times we will stay with the same group and teach each skill, which also benefits the children. Each of the players adjusts well, they are making huge improvements, and it is a combined effort of all the coaches, Kathie and the players themselves.

“The players are driven, motivated and positive while learning each skill. (And) a lot of the hearing players come up to me and ask what the sign is for a word; some of the players have even developed friendships with some of the deaf players. That’s how it started for me, (so) I encourage it.”
The interaction has certainly worked with fellow deaf player and E.C. Drury chum Nora Stasiukiewicz.

“We are all comfortable with (the arrangement), said Nora’s dad Greg. “Nora said communication was clear. When she comes home, she explains what she learned with excitement.

“I’d say Nora is having fun and learning. It boosts her confidence and she enjoys being part of the group.”
Perhaps, Nora and Wyatt will be among Canada’s hopefuls at future Deaflympics.

Women’s national volleyball head coach Derek Usman hopes to further Canada’s standing in the world as he gains experience and hopes to continue leading the program for some time.

“When I first started as an assistant coach three years ago, I found that it took a while to communicate and not a lot was accomplished during practice. However, since I’ve been head coach I’ve adjusted a lot by using a variety of different tools (including white board) to explain volleyball drills, systems etc., and found my practices run a lot smoother now than they did in the past. (While) I don’t know sign language, I do have a team interpreter.

“I have found that coaching this group of athletes is no different than other teams I’ve coached. There is a lot of opportunity for one-on-one (coaching) and we have done this in training camps. It might take a bit longer, as we communicate through an interpreter, but we are able to accomplish this task.”
In Wyatt’s case, if good enough, he would likely have his pick of either the U.S. or Canadian men’s team, considering he, like his mother Sarah, were born in the United States and moved here five years ago.

Sarah, who attended the Kansas School for the Deaf, where one of that country’s greatest deaf athletes, Luther Taylor, attended, feels Canada has a ways to go in order to catch up to the rights of the deaf south of the border.
“Mostly we always struggled with accessibility and the government kept saying they are improving, but if you have to look at the United States and their approach towards disabled people, they are way more welcoming and well prepared, such as with interpreters, sports programs, funding and lifestyle.”
Goure believes due to the larger population and a bigger deaf community of approximately 28 million people with hearing loss, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) packs more punch.

Her thoughts are backed up by the number of deaf athletes succeeding in the U.S.

According to Deaf Digest Magazine, there were 76 deaf and hard of hearing students playing NCAA and NAIA college sports in 2012, of which 39 were playing at the highest Division One level.
According to the same source, it was the 1973 rehabilitation act mandating interpreters for deaf and hard of hearing students at universities, that helped protect athletes from discrimination. This has led to increased numbers of deaf athletes competing in sports.

And, what a distinguished list it is. A quick look at accomplished deaf athletes, includes; former National Football Leaguers Derrick Coleman, Reed Doughty, Kenny Walker and Bonnie Sloan; swimmers Terence Parkin and Marcus Titus; baseball’s Luther Hayden Taylor, William Hoy and Curtis Pride; hockey’s Jim Kyte; basketball’s Lance Allred, Emma Meesseman and Tamika Catchings; and track and field’s Dean Barton-Smith and Gerhard Sperling.