Counsellor remembers the big-hearted deaf kid who now helps others.
Each week during the campaign, campers and staff from Fresh Air Fund camps will share their memories in their own words. Mike Cyr began working at Silent Voice Sign Language Summer Program in 2000 and, in 2003, he became the agency’s full-time program director of child and family services working with deaf and hard-of-hearing children and their hearing brothers and sisters.
Sixteen years ago this summer, I was working nights in the kitchen at the Paddock Tavern. I wanted to do something during the day to contribute to my community, so I decided to work as a day camp counsellor at Silent Voice Sign Language Summer Program.
The camp, the only one of its kind in the city, was a place where deaf and hard-of-hearing children and their hearing siblings could interact in an environment made accessible to everyone by using American Sign Language. Having no experience working with deaf and hard-of-hearing children, I was surprised to see so many children struggling to communicate.
One of the first campers I worked with was Juanpablo (JP) Armani, who was also at the camp for the first time. JP was often paired with me. He had difficulty communicating with other staff, some of them not deaf. He was a little guy with a big heart, though he struggled with his peers. However, as the summer progressed, he grew more confident.
JP remembers this first summer fondly: “When I first came to the camp, I did not know how to sign, but the camp taught me how to (sign) and they gave me a language so I could communicate with everyone,” he writes in an email.
JP returned to the camp for several summers, and his younger sister, Natalia Armani, who was not deaf, attended as well. I remember JP being very protective of her, often asking where she was because she was put in a younger group. At lunch time, he would make sure Natalia had her food. Natalia did not know much ASL, and it was amazing to see her big brother taking care of her without really being able to communicate.
“My sister and I became closer thanks to the camp; it became easier for us to communicate with sign (language),” says JP.
Fast forward to summer 2012: I had long left my job at the Tavern for a full-time job at Silent Voice as program director of child and family services. To my surprise, on a pile of resumes submitted for a summer camp position was one from JP Armani. He had no experience and was still in high school, but his big heart was obviously still there. He was hired, and this year, he is returning for his fourth consecutive summer camp.
“I love kids and I love being a role model for them to look up to,” says JP, who has completed his Early Childhood Educator certification at Humber College and will be seeking full-time employment in the fall.
“I love to empower them to chase their dreams and I believe children need a deaf role model to show them that they can have their own success.”
That is why camps like Silent Voice are so important — they allow the cycle to complete itself: JP is now paying it forward.
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