A shivering, smiling 6-year-old Drake Bailey dives head first into the pool, his water shoes disappearing as two lifeguards help guide him to the bottom.
At 34 pounds, Drake is the smallest kid at Camp Cristina in Riverview. Drake's grandmother enrolled him in the summer program so he could learn to swim and make new friends.
Not everyone is like him, she explained the first morning she dropped him off.
Now, a few weeks into camp, Drake emerges from the water holding a plastic yellow ring. He slams it down, signals thumbs up and makes a splash going in after the green one.
"He dives better than most the other kids," swim teacher Logan Cooney says as Drake climbs onto the pool's edge and awaits instruction.
Cooney moves his arms like a swimmer and points down into the water. Drake stomps his little feet and laughs. It's a different kind of laugh, but Drake is a different kind of camper.
He is deaf.
"Sometimes I forget, and I talk to him," Cooney, 20, says. "But with Drake, it's about showing rather than explaining. He's teaching me. He's teaching everyone at camp."
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Doctors don't know why Drake was born with a cluster of birth defects known as Vater syndrome. The syndrome isn't scientifically linked to anything specific. Infants affected by Vater can experience everything from kidney and heart defects to limb deformities. Drake came into the world with a malformed ear. He could never hear. He was in and out of the hospital the first few years of his life. He underwent multiple heart surgeries.
Today, he is in good health. He's small but strong. His deafness is permanent, but he is learning to communicate in a hearing world.
When Drake turned 1, a teacher started coming to his house to teach his mom and grandmother American Sign Language. They learned quickly, and so has Drake. He knows the alphabet and signs for most words common to a typical 6-year-old boy.
This fall, he will enter first grade at Colsen Elementary in Seffner, where there is a program for deaf children.
Camp is his first experience being away from home in a primarily hearing setting.
Drake isn't always easy to discipline. His grandmother, Sue Bailey, calls him stubborn. Until recently, he required afternoon naps. He gets frustrated when people don't know how to sign and acts out.
"Right now, he still doesn't realize we are all talking and he isn't," Bailey said. "I think as he gets older, he will understand more, and things like being around hearing people at camp helps."
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At Camp Cristina, counselors welcome the challenge of working with Drake.
The camp, set on 65 acres off Balm Riverview Road, offers a variety of activities from high-rope obstacle courses, to horseback riding and canoeing.
Camp director Darren Dannelly said it is a place where kids with different stories to tell come together. There are foster kids and children with Asperger's syndrome, athletes and artists. When he heard about Drake, he knew the boy would fit right in.
"At camp, you look in the pool and all you see are a bunch of kids playing," Dannelly said. "Here they are all just campers having fun. Drake is having a blast."
He's also popular. He makes a new friend every day. He amazes the other campers when he speeds across the zip line. He plays ga-ga dodgeball with kids twice his size.
The other children are curious about Drake's deafness. Some take time out from play to study his language. The camp has a book filled with signs for the children to study.
Counselors spend time learning and teaching the signs every day.
Alexis Gallenstein, 10, now knows the signs for yes, no, drink and silly. She recently lost her mother and is at camp to help with her grief. Being with Drake keeps her spirits up, Dannelly said. They play Frisbee and baseball.
"Drake has a lot of energy, and he laughs a lot," Alexis said. "He's different because sometimes when he gets in trouble, he doesn't know he's in trouble. He thinks it's a game."
Mackenzie McLendon, 8, is Drake's summer camp crush. He uses the sign for "beautiful" to describe her.
She is learning to sign but sometimes can't understand Drake. He signs too fast for her to understand.
"He's difficult to keep up with, but it's fun to be with him," she said. "I like it when he comes up to me and hugs me."
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Drake emerges from the boys' locker room in dry clothes, wearing his Camp Cristina T-shirt and carrying a bag of cheesy puffs.
It's lunch time, and the kids are getting loud out on the basketball courts. Drake looks around at all the chattering faces. He seems nervous and a little lost. He reaches for his snack and starts to munch, not realizing the counselor behind him is trying to get him to sit.
Then another camper motions to him, and he smiles.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or email@example.com.