Jimmy Waller is one of the unusually resourceful students who managed to swiftly navigate the crowded hallways at Berkeley High School and to graduate with high test scores, an entrance ticket to a top-tier college, and slew of clubs and activities on his resumé. Heading to Pomona College in the fall, Waller plans to study statistics, sociology, and foreign languages, and eventually work abroad.
“I want to study languages, which seems horribly ironic because I’m deaf,” he said, laughing.
Waller is not only a BHS graduate, but an alum of the Center for Early Intervention on Deafness (CEID), a federally funded program in West Berkeley for deaf and hard of hearing children. Established in 1980, CEID has produced dozens of successful students, but this is the first year the program will be formally celebrating the achievements of some of its alumni.
As preschoolers at CEID, Waller and five of his peers were featured on a KGO-TV report. The five young adults from the group who remain in the Bay Area — three of whom went to BHS — will be féted at a June 22 celebration in the Berkeley Bowl West community room. Dan Ashley, the news anchor who covered the program more than a decade ago, will serve as the master of ceremonies. Representatives from California Senator Loni Hancock’s office and Assembly member Nancy Skinner’s office will speak, as will the alumni and their parents.
“There will be an audience of people who really care, and who are excited to celebrate the fruits of all their work,” said CEID director and co-founder Jill Ellis, who first came up with the idea for such an event when she realized the KGO-TV toddlers were seniors in high school this year.
“This is another group of incredibly accomplished young children,” Ellis said. “What is incredible to me is that they have worked so hard to give themselves choices. We dedicate a lot of time and funding and staff to get the children to listen to their potential.”
Though these five CEID alumni eventually attended different schools and pursued different interests, the celebration is hardly a reunion. Many CEID graduates stay in touch with each other and with the staff.
“I’ve been volunteering there ever since seventh grade,” said Davana Jackson, a BHS graduate who is planning to major in business and minor in American Sign Language at Gallaudet University starting this fall. Though she stopped using an interpreter in middle school, Jackson wears a hearing aid in her right ear and frequently took advantage of the support services BHS offered its disabled students.
Jackson said she continues to help out at the center because “they welcomed her with open arms” when she was a child. “If I hadn’t gone there, I probably wouldn’t even be graduating. They’re always in my head,” she said.
CEID is a uniquely comprehensive program that includes education for deaf students, a preschool with a bilingual program in English and sign language for hearing students, classes for family members, and an audiology clinic for infants. The center also provides free hearing screenings in low-income neighborhoods in the Bay Area.
“Usually when you get into education, it’s just education,” Ellis said. “But when you do audiology it crosses over into health and then childcare. Our model is unique — I don’t know another center that does those three parallel approaches.”
While many programs for deaf children focus entirely on sign language or on oral skills, CEID’s method is all-inclusive.
“We were given the opportunity to speak and to be with hearing people, so that doesn’t seem foreign to us at all. But we also had a basis in sign language, so we could easily jump into the deaf world too. There’s nothing I couldn’t do from there,” said Waller, who credits the program for his interest in languages and linguistics. He hears with two hearing aids, and stopped using an interpreter in elementary school.
“Jimmy’s always been an avid reader, and I’m convinced that part of it was connecting sign to symbol to word,” said Susi Marzuola, Waller’s mother and the architect of the CEID building.
When Waller — whose deafness, Cerebral Palsy, and epilepsy are results of going into cardiac arrest for fifteen minutes shortly after birth — reached schooling age, his parents were at a loss of where to send him.
“We had hated the oral programs — that just seemed mean. Our case manager suggested CEID,” Marzuola said. “I remember sitting in Jill’s office and crying. We were a family in crisis, in and out of the hospital. Here we were trying to live as normal a life as we could, but it didn’t seem possible. Jill said: ‘We can work with this. You’ll learn sign language. It’s a new normal—this is just a little hurdle.”
At CEID, Waller “blossomed,” immediately learning dozens of new words, she said.
Family support is necessary to a deaf child’s development, said Ellis, now a good friend of Marzuola’s.
Parents “need to learn how to advocate so that their children receive the services they need in our public schools. That is a huge challenge today, since public schools are facing more and more cuts and one of the easy targets is special education,” Ellis said.
In turn, CEID “always keeps as our core value what parents need,” she said. The center makes an effort to accept children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, to provide sign language classes for parents, and to offer guidance on raising deaf children.
It’s a value that requires a lot of supplementary aid in addition to the federal funding it receives. “More than half our budget has to come from various grants. Every year we have over $600,000 we have to raise,” Ellis said.
She hopes that Friday’s celebration will not only serve to honor the accomplishments of the students, but to reinforce a CEID alumni network, and to encourage the graduates to support the center in the future if they can.
“I will always give back to CEID,” Jackson said. “I feel that I owe them a lot.”
CEID’s “Celebrate Success” luncheon takes place on Friday June 22, 12-2:30pm at Berkeley Bowl West Community Room. Tickets cost $30. For more information, visit CEID.
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