Three students selected for inaugural Camp Courage

8-year-old Christlin Hester has a smile that would light up the darkest of rooms.

She enjoys school, loves playing with her classmates, adores coloring and drawing and is a natural leader.

In most ways, Christlin is a typical child full of energy and tenacity, but lately Christlin has had some big questions for her parents.

She wants to know why she’s different.

To look at Christlin, she looks like every other second grade student at Phil Campbell Elementary, but there is one significant difference. Christlin is profoundly deaf.

Her mother, Christy Hester, said Christlin has been deaf since birth because her nerve endings didn’t form properly.

Hester said her daughter struggled some in the beginning when trying to learn and communicate through sign language, but overall, she said Christlin met every obstacle head on, including the challenge of learning how to talk after receiving cochlear implants at the age of three and actually being able to hear sounds for the first time in her life.

“Christlin has done amazingly well considering what she has dealt with, and we’ve never made a point to treat her like she is any different,” Hester said, “but when she’s in school every day with children who don’t have cochlear implants or hearing impairments, she’s started wondering why she is different, and for a mother, sometimes that’s hard to explain to a young child.”

But thanks to a new program sponsored by the Helen Keller Birthplace Foundation and the American Optometric Association Foundation, in conjunction with the University of North Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Christlin will have the chance this month to meet and spend time with other children in the area who are “just like her” in many ways.

Christlin was one of three children in Franklin County who were chosen to participate in the inaugural Camp Courage, which is a three-day camp for visually and/or hearing impaired children at Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller, in Tuscumbia.

Christlin will be participating in activities along with 11-year-old Blaise Murray from Russellville and 6-year-old Kendall Palmer from Vina.

Both Blaise and Kendall are profoundly deaf and, like Christlin, hear sounds through the assistance of bilateral cochlear implants.

Kendall, who is a kindergartner at Vina School, was diagnosed as being profoundly deaf at 18 months old after several months of tests.

Kendall’s mother, Ashley Palmer, said her daughter learned sign language and communicated in this way until she received her first cochlear implant at three years old.

After being denied by their insurance company for Kendall’s second cochlear implant, Palmer said their church family began tireless fundraising efforts to raise the $50,000 needed for the surgery, which Kendall finally received in March of this year.

“Kendall began hearing and learning sounds after the first cochlear implant, but it was amazing the difference the second implant made,” Palmer said.

“She began learning how to use the sounds she was hearing and is able to speak in small sentences now. She’s had to work hard, but she is doing a great job.”

Unlike the two girls, Blaise Murray had his cochlear implant surgeries at an earlier age and never used sign language as a form of communication.

Blaise and his twin brother, Blake, were born premature at 27 weeks and stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit for 64 days before going home.

Blaise failed his newborn hearing test and the family soon learned that he had auditory neuropathy, which caused his deafness.

His first cochlear implant surgery was performed at 16 months old on his right side and the second surgery on his left side was performed when he was almost six years old.

Blaise’s mother, Michelle Murray, said they utilized auditory verbal therapy, which discourages the use of sign language in favor of the person relying on their hearing and speaking skills.

She said the hours of structure time learning words and sounds and some of the other struggles Blaise has faced have all just rolled off the shoulders of her laid-back son, whose favorite pastime is hunting and being outdoors.

“Blaise does most anything that other kids his age would do,” Murray said. “We don’t try to treat him differently, and he doesn’t see himself as being different because this is all he has ever known.”

The three Franklin County children, along with their parents, will head to the three-day camp on Oct. 24 where they will participate in different activities, but what most of the children and parents are looking forward to is just spending time with other people who have faced or will face the same struggles.

“I think this will be so beneficial for Christlin to be around these other children and see that she isn’t alone – that she isn’t as ‘different’ as she might think she is,” Hester said.

“I think it will help her to get to participate in all these different activities and to be part of something so special.”

Palmer agreed that Kendall would similarly benefit from attending the camp.

“Kendall gets so excited whenever she’s around someone who is like her so I know this will be a great experience for her,” Palmer said, “but I think it will also be something great for the parents because we’ll be able to talk with other people who have gone through the same things who might be able to help us with the things we’re dealing with.

“I think we will all be able to learn so much from one another and help our children continue to grow and learn more as well.”

Murray said she had hoped that there might be some camp participants who were older than Blaise so they could receive the same kind of mentoring that both Hester and Palmer described, but she said she also understood that she and her son may be in the position of mentoring rather than being mentored.

“Blaise is older and has gone through all these different stages, like starting school and being an active child involved in different activities,” Murray said.

“When we first found out about the camp, I knew it was something we wanted to participate in because we believe it’s always good to take advantage of opportunities for us to learn more, so of course I hoped there would be children a little older than Blaise who we could talk to.

“But being one of the older ones there, Blaise will be in a position to help some of the other children and show them how far he has come.

“I’ve never questioned why Blaise is the way he is because I know God has a plan, and we may see some of that plan unfold when we attend this camp. It would be a great experience if we were able to help another child or parent because of what we’ve already been through.”

Blaise’s face lit up when he considered the prospect of being a role model.

“I don’t really think of myself as being different,” Blaise said. “This has just been normal for me, but it might not have been normal for other people. I think the camp will be a good experience and I’m looking forward to meeting the other kids.”

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