Vernon Hills mom starts Girl Scout Troop for deaf

Summarized by Rachel Janis, staff writer

Lake Villa resident Kim Olsen is excited that her daughter Emily, age five, feels accepted in Girl Scout Troop 40735 with her bilateral cochlear implants. The troop caters to the deaf and hard of hearing, and gives children with hearing loss a chance to have fun like any other child their age.

“She’s always so super excited,” Olson said of her daughter. “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.”

With two five-year-old deaf daughters, Tiffany DeYoung of Vernon Hills began Troop 40735 last October. She claimed donated space in the Fremont Township government building near Mundelein and holds monthly meetings, attended by girls from all over the area, even as far as Aurora and Blue Island.

Because most parents are not proficient in signing, DeYoung said, the troop includes a licensed, professional American Sign Language interpreter to help the girls receive a true Girl Scout experience.

DeYoung states, “Signing while you’re talking is not a true language… 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.”

When DeYoung’s family lived in Oklahoma, her twins Alexys and Kaylah joined their sister Jordyn, 13, in a standard Girl Scout troop, and a sign language interpreter was available to aid them. However, when the family relocated to Vernon Hills in 2013, DeYoung learned that the local Girl Scout troop wouldn’t provide an interpreter, and DeYoung decided to step in and take it in her own direction.

With 23 girls from Lake County, Chicago, Dekalb, Aurora, and Blue Island, Troop 40735 is now regional after eight months of running. Girls with normal hearing are also allowed to participate in the troop, if they are siblings or close friends and can sign.

The success of the troop spread from John Powers Center in Vernon Hills, which is a school for deaf and hard of hearing students that is attended by DeYoung’s twins.

Spokeswoman Julie Somogyi said that it is unknown if there are other troops tailored for deaf girls or that include sign language interpreters at regular meetings; diversity statistics regarding emotional, cognitive, or physical ability aren’t tracked through Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana.

“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 states.

To support the troop’s American Sign Language interpreter and other needs, the council has given about $1,200 to Troop 40735. “We do our best to accommodate those needs in a fair and fiscally responsible way,” Somogyi said.

The only differences of Troop 40735 from a standard Girl Scout troop is that the girls sign and the interpreter, Gregg Sperling of Lisle, is always nearby for assistance. Sperling makes sure the dozen girls don’t miss anything when it comes to information from the troop leaders or the instructions of team-building exercises.

The girls also sign the Pledge of Allegiance before the troop meetings begin.

Sydney Swiercz, 12, of Lakemoor, is part of the troop and agrees that Sperling’s assistance is helpful to her. Her friend Emily McCall, 12, is also part of the troop to support Sydney, but has normal hearing. She adds that Troop 40735 has more involvement than a conventional troop she had attended 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 reflects.

Sperling believes “It’s absolutely crucial for any participant in any event to know what is being 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.”

The funding for a sign-language interpreter is the result of a lawsuit that was filed in 2012 involving the Chicago-area Girl Scout organization.

A deaf former Girl Scout and her mother, Schaumburg residents, sued the council in federal court, claiming that the Girl Scouts withdrew the services of an interpreter. The Schaumburg troop disbanded after the family insisted on the interpreter, according to the Girl Scouts.

The lawsuit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds in U.S. District Court in Chicago, said the mother-daughter team’s lawyer Steven Blonder. He said that the matter is before a federal appeals court.

The troop, DeYoung said, would like more than the $1,200 that was granted for financial help.

Somogyi said, although the Girl Scouts “value the opportunity to welcome all girls in the spirit of honoring our founder, Juliette Gordon Low,” who happened to be deaf, the council can only give so much to Troop 40375 because of the special-needs maximum of $5,000 annually for the Chicago area.

Somogyi states that “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.”

Local troops usually raise money for their troops through events such as cookie sales, and Somogyi believes this is a learning experience for the girls.

DeYoung said she is going to work through the financial struggles and find a way to accommodate as many girls with hearing loss as possible who wish to join Troop 40735.

“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 states.

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