Hampshire High School student yearns to hear again
Maria Niño will never hear her mother's voice again.
But the 15-year-old Hampshire High School freshman from Aurora yearns to hear other things: The laughter of her sister, Valeria. Her father's voice. Movies. Music.
"Since I was a baby, I have not been able to hear. I couldn't hear my mom," Maria says of her mother, who died in February of cancer.
For Maria and others like her, communication is a special challenge. She learned sign language -- in Spanish -- in her native Mexico. Yet when she signs for English speakers, someone must translate the signing into English first and then into the spoken word.
Maria breaks into tears when asked if she would like to hear again. She barely can sign the words: "Yes, because it's broken."
As a young child, Maria learned how to communicate by writing down simple words: "Park." "School." "Store." In 2007, at the age of 7, she received a cochlear implant in her right ear, enabling her to hear sounds. But the external computing device that helps her process those sounds was damaged when she was studying at a school for students with special needs in her native Uriangato, a city in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico.
Bullied by some of her peers who would grab the external device from her, Maria had dropped it several times, said her father, Jesus Niño, speaking through an interpreter.
All that has taken a toll on his daughter, Jesus said. "She is extremely sad."
The family moved from Mexico to Aurora in March.
'Right thing to do'
Maria says she would like to be able to help friends at school and communicate with others.
She doesn't yet have medical insurance -- other than Medicaid -- so her teachers and peers at Hampshire High School are trying to help raise funds for the device, which could cost from $9,000 to $12,000.
"It's just the right thing to do," said Patti Nihells, who coaches cross-country and track and field at Hampshire and hasn't even met Maria. "We had a $500 anonymous donation from a friend of a teacher here. People are stepping up and helping out."
Nihells' cross-country athletes are selling glow-in-the-dark T-shirts for Maria with the front reading "In the Shire" and a "W" on the back representing the school's mascot, the Whip-Purs.
"We made it a universal shirt for the Hampshire community," she said. "We've sold over 150 T-shirts. We are going to keep taking orders online or in school."
T-shirts are available for $15 through atomapparelusa.com, a website started by Nihells' son, with $10 per shirt benefiting Maria.
Nihells also is donating a portion of the proceeds from an annual dodgeball tournament on Feb. 19. Typically, more than 20 teams participate in the tournament, held in the field house of the school at 1600 Big Timber Road. The entry fee is $15 per person, of which $10 will go to Maria.
"We are always looking for someone to help," Nihells said. "Last year, we raised over $500 for juvenile diabetes."
A Hampshire senior also is doing her own fundraiser for Maria by selling candy at all of the sporting events.
Through the Northwestern Illinois Association -- a special education cooperative serving children with special needs from birth to 21 years -- Maria is learning English and American Sign Language at a rapid pace, yet she realizes how much being able to hear could enhance her learning, said Ruthann Wolffing-Seegers, teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing for the special education cooperative housed at Hampshire High School this year.
"We're going to make this happen. It's just too important to not make this happen," Wolffing-Seegers said. "It's heartbreaking."
Next, art class
Students in the Northwestern Illinois Association program come to Hampshire High School from Aurora, Batavia, Carpentersville, DeKalb, Schaumburg and St. Charles to receive special education services.
Maria is learning photography at Hampshire along with her deaf club peers, partially funded through a donation from the Hampshire Lions Club.
"We are hoping next year to get her into a mainstream art class," Wolffing-Seegers said.
The only class that Maria is mainstreamed for now is physical education,Wolffing-Seegers said.
Even with the assistive device, Maria's hearing won't be perfect. It was a bittersweet moment when she got the cochlear implant and could hear for the first time.
"They (her family) thought it was going to be this magic device where she would hear everything," Wolffing-Seegers said. "It's not just like flipping a switch and hearing. The brain has to go through a great deal of rewiring in terms of trying to understand sound. It's a process."
Maria initially would complain that there was too much noise. In fact, Wolffing-Seegers said, she never really liked or cared for hearing, until she started attending the Northwestern Illinois Association program.
"She sees her classmates, they have it and she sees how they process things," she said. "Now she is more enthusiastic about it. She really enjoys coming to school here because she sees that a lot of doors are opening."
Maria said she would like to go to college someday and to get a job working with animals.
Jesus Niño said he is grateful for the support Maria is receiving at school and the generosity of strangers.
He said he wants her to be independent one day, start her own family and have children.
"I want her to be happy," he said.