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Pier Aquarium camp brings the sea to life for hearing-impaired kids

A partnership between two community organizations has resulted in a new camp for deaf children, which makes its debut this week.

The Pier Aquarium and the Family Center on Deafness combined resources in 2009 as the aquarium developed its deaf docent program. Money from the same Community Foundation Grant that paid for the program is being used to underwrite Explore the Bay, which started Monday and is serving 15 deaf and hard-of-hearing children ages 9 to 12.

"We recognized when we met with some of our sponsors there was a large population in the Tampa Bay area of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals," said Howard Rutherford, the aquarium's president and chief executive officer. "It made us think how can we make our exhibits more accessible to all?"

The aquarium increased its accessibility this past year, installing revolving liquid crystal display exhibits and hands-on touch tanks. The Family Center provided input to serve the estimated 3 million hearing-impaired Floridians. The center serves 2,500 deaf residents in Pinellas County.

As conversations from last October turned into more solid ideas about the camp, Pier Aquarium education coordinator Susan Sawyer began making frequent stops at the Cracker Barrel on 54th Avenue N while driving from her Tampa home. Cindy Hebbeler, the Family Center's literacy specialist, met her there to trade information: Sawyer offered marine science tidbits, and Hebbeler taught her how to sign words such as ''sea urchin'' and ''watershed.''

"Really, we aren't doing things specifically separate," Sawyer said. "There will be an interpreter working there with the kids, and Cindy will be reading lips. She reads my lips and signs, and I teach her things."

That collaboration will continue to play out as Sawyer leads campers on field trips to Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory and to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. In Clearwater, campers will interact with Panama, a deaf dolphin.

"It'll be a great experience for them," Sawyer said. "They'll be able to relate to the dolphin and see how things they know, their signs, can be used to communicate with anything."

A scheduled visit to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute had to be canceled because it is being used for gulf oil spill relief efforts. But officials will speak at the camp on echinoderms, crustaceans and rays.

The camp concludes with a review day and an afternoon pizza party with parents. They'll go over what their children learned and see artwork created that will be part of an August show at Florida International Museum.

The experience has Charon Field Aurand, director of the Family Center on Deafness, excited. The center has offered summer camps during each of its eight years but never, she said, with this much visibility.

"I think what's really happening is you're taking two high-quality programs that have provided excellent summer camp opportunities for their respective populations for several years, and we're taking those resources and joining forces," she said. "We can bring their programs to the youth we have traditionally served."

>> Fast facts

Pier Aquarium camps

The Pier Aquarium offers several camps throughout the summer. For more information about camps, call Susan Sawyer at (727) 895-7437, ext. 205.

For scholarship information, contact Cynthia Fox at (727) 803-9799, ext. 206. Visit online at

Pier Aquarium camp brings the sea to life for hearing-impaired kids 06/15/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 15, 2010 1:24pm]
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