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Helping hands

East Elementary School student uses sign language interpreter in the classroom

Mona Bergstrom helps out on the playground and occasionally in the classroom, but when it comes right down to it, she has one job — Mariah Kowach.

Bergstrom is a private aid employed by the Moffat County School District to work with Mariah, who is hearing impaired and suffers from language and developmental delays.

The two attend East Elementary School.



Mariah spent 11 days at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction after she was born. She was flown there by a Flight for Life helicopter because she was having seizures and couldn’t breathe on her own. Further tests indicated that she wasn’t getting the oxygen she needed in the week before she was born, either.

When she was 2 1/2, Mariah spent four days at Children’s Hospital in Denver undergoing extensive developmental screenings.



“I would hate to do it all again, but I’m so glad we did,” her mother, Karen, said. “It seems like a lifetime ago.”

Karen said that most noticeable was that her daughter wasn’t really talking clearly and didn’t seem to hear some tones.

Doctors found that Mariah was completely deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other. They fitted her for hearing aids.

With help, Mariah can hear, but some tones are still hard for her to understand. Learning sign language, Bergstrom said, lets Mariah associate what she hears with a word. She might hear a different sound, but signing allows her to know what word that sound is supposed to indicate.

In that way, she’s learning what Bergstrom calls “sign-supported speech.”

Mariah can speak, though she often relies on signs — particularly with someone who understands them. She also works with a speech therapist.

Mariah is now in second grade, and partway through her second year of working with Bergstrom and few doubt the effect learning to sign has had on her life.

“It’s a learning tool for her, it’s really helped,” Karen said.

Although there are some areas that Mariah continues to need additional help in, she’s caught up with her class in several others.

“We’ve seen just an amazing growth in the child’s understanding,” East Elementary School Principal Diana Cook said. “This has opened up a whole new world for her.”

Karen attributes all of her daughter’s advancement to the one-on-one attention afforded through the school district.

“That is the best thing the school has done for her,” she said. “Special ed just wasn’t enough. There wasn’t enough one-on-one attention.”

That specialized attention is something that’s not an option for the school district. It’s federally mandated.

“For the most part, what a child needs, is what a child gets,” Cook said.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that Mariah show the same achievement as all other students.

Though Bergstrom is employed to meet Mariah’s educational needs, Mariah isn’t the only one benefiting. Other students are learning a second language, too, as they watch Bergstrom sign to Mariah. The entire second-grade class at East Elementary School can sign the Pledge of Allegiance and can sign “please don’t” and “not nice.” Others ask Bergstrom how to do special signs.

“It’s neat to see the kids walking down the hall signing,” Cook said. “We’re very fortunate to have her here because of the services she can provide.”

Karen and her husband are also learning sign language through a college class. Bergstrom is their teacher, too, and goes to their house each week for the two-hour class. The first hour is spent with Mariah so her parents can track what she’s learning and learn the same signs. The second hour is without Mariah.

It’s not known how long Mariah and Bergstrom will be a pair.

“It will always be in her best interests to be sign supported — to have someone with her to sign,” Bergstrom said. “In my opinion the interpretation is always going to be a benefit.”

Cook said it’s a “wait-and-see” situation that will depend on how well Mariah picks up language and well her verbal skills develop.

But back with Bergstrom Mariah completes a reading task nearly perfectly — only cheating once or twice — and bows with a flourish. Before she leaves, she puts her arms around Bergstrom for a casual hug.

Some things just don’t need words.


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