Vernon Hills mom starts Girl Scout troop for deaf

Lake Villa resident Kim Olsen couldn't help but smile as she looked out a window to watch her daughter participate in a Girl Scout troop flag ceremony.

Olsen's 5-year-old daughter, Emily, has bilateral cochlear implants.

What had Olsen smiling was seeing Emily have fun like other children her age because she's in Girl Scout Troop 40735, which caters to the deaf and hard of hearing.

“She's always so super excited,” Olsen said as her daughter became intrigued by a frog she spotted after the start of an outdoor flag ceremony at a recent meeting.

“She just likes hanging out with her friends and learning new things. She has the opportunity to go to so many places and do things. And it's really important, too, because she has an interpreter if she needs it. Where, if we go out on our own, we don't have that service.”

Tiffany DeYoung of Vernon Hills, who has two 5-year-old deaf daughters, said she started Troop 40735 last October to fill a need for her girls. She secured donated space in the Fremont Township government building near Mundelein for monthly meetings that are now attended by girls from as far away as Aurora and Blue Island.

DeYoung said a licensed, professional American Sign Language interpreter allows the children in her troop to receive the full Girl Scout experience. She said most parents are not proficient in signing.

“Signing while you're talking is not a true language,” DeYoung said. “It's not doing justice to either language. English has one type of grammar structure (and American Sign Language) is another grammar structure. To combine those two, it's very difficult.”

DeYoung said a sign language interpreter was available for her twins, Alexys and Kaylah, when they joined their sister Jordyn, 13, in a standard Girl Scout troop when her family lived in Oklahoma. When the family moved to Vernon Hills in 2013, she decided to take action after learning the local Girl Scout troop would not provide an interpreter.

After a modest start with DeYoung's three daughters, Troop 40735 has become regional in eight months by attracting 23 girls from Lake County, Chicago, DeKalb, Aurora and Blue Island. Girls with normal hearing are allowed in the troop if they can sign and are siblings or close friends.

News about the troop spread from John Powers Center in Vernon Hills, a school for deaf and hard of hearing students attended by DeYoung's twins.

It's not precisely known if there are other troops tailored for deaf girls, or that have sign-language interpreters at conventional meetings. Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana does not track diversity statistics with regard to emotional, cognitive or physical ability, or other special needs, spokeswoman Julie Somogyi said.

“We learn about girls' spectrum of challenges — that may include mobility issues, severe food allergies, hearing and visual impairments and more — primarily when families or troop leaders make us aware of any issues on camp or activity registration forms,” Somogyi said.

The council has given about $1,200 in direct financial support to the troop for the American Sign Language interpreter and other needs. “We do our best to accommodate those needs in a fair and fiscally responsible way,” Somogyi said.

With the flag ceremony, field trips and other activities, Troop 40735 is similar to any other for girls 5 to 17 years old. The only noticeable difference is when the girls sign and interpreter Gregg Sperling of Lisle is nearby to provide assistance.

At this month's meeting, Sperling moved around to ensure a dozen girls didn't miss any information from troop leaders or others. He was there to relay instructions when they played Girl Scout-to-Girl Scout, a team-building exercise in which participants paired off and touched the body parts, such as an elbow, called out by a group leader.

The girls even sign the Pledge of Allegiance before troop meetings.

One of the girls at the meeting, Sydney Swiercz, 12, of Lakemoor, said she enjoys the chance to earn badges and agrees Sperling's presence is helpful to her.

Emily McCall, 12, also of Lakemoor, has normal hearing but joined the troop to be with her pal, Sydney. She said Troop 40735 has more involvement compared to a conventional one she had been in until it folded.

“I think that this troop really helps the little girls because I don't think that they would join a (regular) troop,” Emily said.

Sperling said the girls deserve proper sign language at the meetings.

“It's absolutely crucial for any participant in any event to know what is being said,” he said. “And so this troop is no different. The girls who can't hear, or the girls that are hard of hearing, utilize my interpreting to know what is going on and what people are saying.”

Funding for a sign-language interpreter became an issue for the Chicago-area Girl Scout organization after a lawsuit was filed in 2012.

A deaf former Girl Scout from Schaumburg and her mother sued the council in federal court. The suit alleged the Girl Scouts withdrew the services of an interpreter and later — when the family insisted on one — disbanded the Schaumburg troop.

Lawyer Steven Blonder, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Megan Runnion and her mother, said it was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds in U.S. District Court in Chicago. He said the matter is before a federal appeals court.

DeYoung said the troop would like more than the $1,200 in financial help.

Somogyi said that while the Girl Scouts “value the opportunity to welcome all girls in the spirit of honoring our founder, Juliette Gordon Low,” who was deaf, there is only so much financial support the council can give to Troop 40375 because its special-needs maximum for the Chicago area is $5,000 annually. Financial assistance also was provided for an interpreter to work Girl Scout Day at John G. Shedd Aquarium in January and at Adler Planetarium's Astro-Overnight this month.

“Limited resources and a diverse membership of girls from a wide variety of circumstances, including economic hardships, mean that we have had to develop a framework to guide us in ensuring we can provide assistance across our 245 communities,” Somogyi said.

Local troops typically raise money for programming through endeavors, such as cookie sales, which Somogyi said is a learning experience for girls.

Despite the financial challenge, DeYoung said she'll find a way to accommodate as many deaf and hard of hearing girls as possible who want to join Troop 40375.

“For this troop, my long-term goal would be to keep the girls together, continue letting them come and have friends that are deaf like themselves. ... If it gets to where it's so big, then start two troops and have a north and a south, or an east and a west, or wherever we need to go with it,” DeYoung said.

Twitter: @DHBobSusnjara

  Girl Scouts and 5-year-old Vernon Hills twins Alexys DeYoung, right, and Kaylah, belong to Troop 40735. Here, they play at a recent meeting in donated space at Fremont Township government's building near Mundelein. George LeClaire/
  Certified licensed sign language interpreter Gregg Sperling of Lisle attend troop meetings to communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing girls. George LeClaire/
  Five-year-old Vernon Hills twins Kaylah DeYoung, right, and Alexys belong to Girl Scout Troop 40735. They attended a recent meeting at Fremont Township government's building where they joined other girls in games and other activities. George LeClaire/
  Girl Scouts with Troop 40735, sign the Pledge of Allegiance in front of a U.S. flag outside Fremont Township government headquarters near Mundelein. The troop is geared toward girls who are deaf or hard of hearing, George LeClaire/
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