When Adela Garcia moved to Pullman in western Michigan, she was 10, deaf from birth and had never seen American Sign Language.
To communicate in her Spanish-speaking world, she used gestures and a sign language that only her family understood. Eleven years later, Garcia, 21, has a 3.8 grade point average and a letter of admission to Gallaudet University, the world's only liberal arts college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. She's in Washington, D.C., at the university's English Language Institute, honing her English so she can tackle her freshman year of classes. But staying in school has been one challenge after another.
Days before the spring semester started, Garcia lost the grant that was supposed to pay for her English classes. She told the Free Press through an interpreter that she was disappointed, but determined to stay positive.
Back in Michigan, her teachers in the Van Buren Intermediate School District were stunned -- they said coming back to Pullman would mean fewer post-high school opportunities. So, in the span of two weeks in January, Garcia's teachers turned to Facebook and raised more than $12,000 to make up for the grant and get her into that spring semester.
On Jan. 25, the last day her fees could be paid, Garcia learned she could attend her spring semester English classes. That day, she posted a video message that was captioned to the people on Facebook who helped her stay in school. "Hello, I'm here in class," she signed, smiling broadly, with subtitles below. "Finally for raised money for college. Thank you so much to everyone. Love you all."
One of Garcia's first teachers, Amy Fleischmann, said the young woman is not only the first person in her family to go to college, but the first to graduate from the district's program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Lawrence. She teared up as she described why she and Garcia's other teachers turned to friends and strangers to help pay for their student's future.
"We see such potential in her and we know she can do it," said Fleishmann, "There's not opportunity for her here. She's paving the way."
Starting at square one
On Garcia's first day of school, Fleishmann and her other teachers were challenged -- the little girl had spent several years in Mexican schools with no services for deaf people. She not only had to learn American Sign Language (ASL) to take any course from math to history, but she also had to learn English, upon which ASL was based.
"We pretty much started at square one," said Fleischmann, now a teacher consultant with the Van Buren Intermediate School District.
Garcia, who was born in Washington, moved to Mexico with her mother when she was very young. After returning to Michigan, she was eager to learn. Through things like cooking and scrapbooking, she started learning English words and the signs that went with them. But every night, she went home to Spanish. To keep English fresh in her mind, she said, she watched television with closed captioning on. She studied in the evenings. And, slowly, English began to click.
"The first year of school, I did not understand anything," said Garcia in sign language. "Once I learned how to communicate and express myself, it really skyrocketed."
There isn't a lot to do in Pullman, said Garcia. The unincorporated community is in Lee Township, about halfway between Allegan and South Haven.
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