Today’s Blog is written by Ken Levinson. It is about a topic that is very dear to my heart – providing support for children with hearing loss. Ken is a CPA and a partner in a CPA firm in San Francisco. Prior to that, he was the Executive Director of The Children’s Hearing Institute in New York and a partner in another CPA practice in Los Angeles. Ken is currently the president of the board of the Jean Weingarten Peninsula Oral School for the Deaf, a past president of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and has current and past service on boards of many other organizations. He received the Honors of the Association from AG Bell at the 2006 Biennial Convention in Pittsburgh. His involvements have brought him recognition among his peers as Distinguished Alumni of his high school and as the Public Service Award recipient for the California Society of CPAs. Together with the late Donna Dickman, Ken co-created the LOFT program in 1996 at AG Bell’s Biennial Convention in Snowbird, Utah. He is past President of the Board of the San Francisco Circus Center. Ken’s interest in the circus stemmed from his taking a clown class at the Clown Conservatory.
Native American proverb: “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”
You ask: What does this have to do with LOFT (Leadership Opportunities for Teens), a program of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell)? LOFT was started to develop future leaders who are deaf and hard of hearing. While it is still focused on leadership, LOFT has morphed into an experience that bonds teen participants with 19 other teens in a way no one can truly understand but the teens or others like them can. One teen, in summarizing her experience, told her LOFT mates that her parents and siblings were the most important people in her life and she loved them more than anyone in the world, but they just do not “get it” like her LOFT mates do. When the teens meet one another, there is an immediate connection, an immediate understanding, and an immediate relief from the day-to-day social battles of dealing with hearing loss.
LOFT has been in existence since 1996 when Donna Dickman, former executive director of AG Bell, and myself decided to launch the program at the AG Bell convention in Snow Bird, Utah. Since that successful launch, 20 high school teens participated in LOFT sessions every two years around the time of the convention. In 2009, the decision was made to hold LOFT every year due to the increase in demand. The number of applicants continued to climb and starting in 2012, AG Bell has held two LOFT sessions of 20 teens apiece every year.
LOFT consists of several activities where the teens have the opportunities to practice public speaking, do team exercises, learn about leadership, and discuss self-advocacy issues. They also learn about technology and enjoy evening outings where increased social interaction helps solidify the bond. Individuals learn their deafness is a part of them, but not necessarily the defining part of who they are. They learn to accept their hearing loss and to turn it into a positive characteristic.
During the sessions the teens talk about their goals and some of the things that are important to them, such as role models, greatest accomplishments, etc. We discuss good leaders we know and what characteristics are shared by them, as well as discussing different ways to be a leader. Actual lessons on leadership come out of team activities, which also teach various elements of teamwork and how to contribute to the overall goal of the group. A debate activity helps teens articulate certain positions, and most importantly, to listen to and respect opposing thoughts. A significant amount of time is devoted to discussing self-advocacy and how to solve many of the every day obstacles that are encountered. We also spend time getting into more personal issues such as bullying, friendships and other sensitive issues.
I can cover more details about the program, but nothing says it better than testimonials we have received from the teens and parents. Most of the teens term LOFT as a life-changing or defining moment in their lives, as can be seen from some of the following statements from past participants:
“It was a very enlightening and life-changing experience. I gained a lot of confidence and began to look at my disability in a different light. Since LOFT, I’ve been so much more open about my hearing loss and it has really changed my life for the better. But the most important thing I learned at LOFT is that my disability can’t hold me back from anything. I really feel like I can now conquer the world and whatever life throws my way.”
“The activities we participated in helped me to grow as a person. I feel that the overall experience was life changing. I will keep the lessons and stories that I learned from the counselors, speakers, and my fellow LOFTees for years to come. I am excited for the future!”
“LOFT brought teenagers in high school from all over the world, from different states, high schools, backgrounds, and ideas. Many of us had never met another person his or her own age with hearing impairments. But by the end of LOFT, we were so emotionally attached and open, Nick said it best, ‘Each one of us is perfect the way we are.’ That’s the feeling at the end of LOFT – that each one of us is perfect the way we are. I never really believed that until I went to LOFT. I’ve been a part of cliques in high school and I’ve been the kid made fun of. At LOFT, there are no cliques, there are no losers, there are no jocks, there are no freaks. It’s an amazing environment that I will forever cherish going to.”
Parents, most of whom worry about the future of their children, rest with a new calm after seeing the changes in their teens after participating in LOFT.
“The minute I saw him I knew he had changed. He gained that confidence and security about being a hard-of-hearing teen and living with it on his terms.”
“He is an outstanding student and competitive athlete. Yet, he was alone in a hearing world with essentially no one who knew what he was going through. Each time I received Volta Voices, I would read about the LOFT program and I knew that this was the missing piece our son needed. After attending LOFT, everyone has noticed the difference. He is more confident, happier, and has a strength about him that was not evident before. And, more importantly, he has new friends that he can reach out to for anything. These teens from all over the country now have a common bond and friendship that will be with them forever. That is priceless.”
“LOFT was a life-changing experience for my daughter. She discovered that there are teens just like her. She met successful counselors who are just like her. She now has a network of people to help her better navigate obstacles in a hearing world. She gained what I could never teach her-how to like herself for who she is-and this is priceless.”
“This experience brings tears to my eyes. I could not have asked for more from this experience. My son felt like he belonged to something, was part of something. I have waited for him to experience this feeling for years. The community we live in is great but he is one of a kind. Being with others who are alike due to hearing loss was a blessing for my child. Not only did he not have to explain his situation often or explain why he asked for clarification he was able to see strengths and strategies that others have and share some his own, This was a true blessing that I will always feel privileged that my son was able to be apart of and experience.
“My daughter tends to be shy and socially awkward with other teens that she has not known for a long time. The second I walked in to pick her up at the end, she was a chatterbox, animated, excited to introduce her friends and was soooo incredibly thankful for being able to participate. Although I had heard this could be life-changing, I was not sure how huge the impact would be for her. It has been life-changing. Her confidence in herself socially has been great. To say that these friendships mean a lot to her is an understatement.”
I have always said the teens have the skills to be leaders and to advocate for themselves. What LOFT gives them is the confidence to do so. By making friends with 19 other individuals, they develop their own support network, which also includes other networking possibilities for teens provided by AG Bell. Facebook pages are created that allows them to keep in constant touch. Just about every LOFT graduate has maintained lifelong friendships with many of their LOFT mates.
I think, however, the most important statement that can be made about LOFT is that it changes people’s lives. To me, as the founder of the program, this is what gives me the greatest satisfaction. We can see it in the quotes above and a fitting end to this article would be a quote that says exactly that.
“LOFT went way above and beyond my initial expectations. It was more than a leadership opportunity – it was something that changed my life. It helped me see the world in a new perspective and gave me the ability to see myself in a new light. Summer camps come and then vanish quickly from your mind, but LOFT is a program that is unique. What I learned during the program will stay with me for many years. I made connections, friends, and found myself among others with the burning desire to make a difference in the world. LOFT is a program that has the ability to change lives for the better.”