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These Girl Scouts share a special bond

The meetings begin this way:

Right fist against chest, pinky straight up. Right index finger to lips, then palm flat on left fist. Fists, with thumbs up, on top of each other, moving upward. Right elbow on left hand, right hand moving left to right.

I pledge allegiance to the flag.

The girls of Troop 648 speak the words quickly with their hands, bodies and faces. The girls, all deaf or hearing impaired, promise in sign language to serve God and country, to help those around them and to live by the Girl Scout law.

Today's meeting is about earning a badge in child care. But the real goal for this troop, what makes this a special haven, is the conversation.

The girls live in hearing families, go to school with hearing children. The scout troop is their oasis.

Surrounded by others who speak their language, they can let their guard down. They can let the words flow without worry that they have somehow missed the point, without reminding the speaker that they can't "hear" when a head is turned.

Here, they are free to launch into a long, intricate explanation of the plot of the TV show Baywatch or a discussion of whether Amanda Shearer's diamond ring is real or fake.

"When I'm with my hearing friends, it's hard for me to understand," says Amanda, who is 9{. "It makes me get mad."

What's her favorite part of scouts? She answers without hesitation:

"Talking."

The girls of Troop 648 have squirreled away in a small, yellow room in the building that is home to the Deaf Service Center's after-school program. Outside, other hearing impaired children are playing video games with the volume on meltdown. A power drill drones in the distance.

The only clamor that's apparent to the scouts, though, is their conversation.

Kiely McHugh, 12, is talking about Baywatch. The program had one show where a little boy wandered away from his parents at the beach and drowned. Kiely, who speaks only in sign language, tells the story with exaggerated sweeps of her hands.

She throws her whole body into this story to convey the drama. That's the thing about sign language. The same sign can have several meanings, so it is facial expression and body language that gives the nuance.

Right hand moves from forehead, as if tipping the bill of a cap. Both hands flip in a motion to the left. Both hands wave, fingers apart, side to side.

"The boy was dead already."

When she's finished, Melissa Turner waves her hands to get Kiely's and Amanda's attention. She tells about how one time, she stopped her teacher's child from walking around with scissors. She uses sign language for her friends and leader. Though she doesn't hear, she speaks well.

The girls go back and forth with their tales of disaster.

Kiely says her brother once bit Amanda's brother on the butt. "And made it bleed," Amanda contributes out loud. She understands sign language, but uses her voice to speak most of the time.

The girls laugh, especially when Amanda makes a gagging sound and motion at the thought of her brother.

With dramatic eye rolls and facial grimaces, they tell tales of all kinds of danger, from lightning to swimming pools to poisons under the sink, waving their hands to interrupt as they try to top each other.

Scout leader Krista Coggins, 31, who has been deaf since birth, breaks in now and again, speaking in sign language.

If they'll bring dolls next week, she says, they can practice changing diapers.

Ugh. They react as if she asked them to wear diapers themselves.

Melissa, who is 10, shakes her head. "I throw my baby dolls away already," she says, flipping her hand dismissingly.

Well, Coggins says, after they practice on dolls, she might get her friend to bring a real, live baby boy they can practice on.

Again, the disgust.

"My brother pooped and I had to change it. Yuck," Amanda says. "I had to take two showers."

If they're going to have a baby in this room, Melissa says, it should be a really cute one.

Palms up, hands move left to right. Right palm to chest. Right thumb from ear to chin, then index fingers meet in front of body. Arms, cradled, rock side to side.

"I'll bring my sister's girl baby."

The easy rapport between the girls was one of Coggins' goals when she helped start the troop last year. She has these three in junior scouts, plus one girl in Brownies and two Daisy scouts.

Coggins wanted to be a scout when she was a child, but there was no troop where she felt comfortable.

In fact, there may not be any others like Troop 648.

"Basically, our Girl Scout goal is when it comes to disabled girls that they be mainstreamed," says Ruth Utley, a spokeswoman for the national scout headquarters. "It's not taboo (to have a troop like this), but it generally doesn't happen."

For Coggins, the troop also shows these girls that being deaf doesn't shut them off from living in the hearing world. Coggins is married and works for AT&T Paradyne.

"I want them to have some kind of role model, someone to look up to," she says. "I want to show them they can do these things. I want to encourage them to do their best in education and just be a good example of what they can do."

Ivy Turner, Melissa's mother, says she realized the deaf children needed activities like the scout troop when Melissa was about 6.

Until then, Melissa could play with her three older siblings and with neighborhood kids without much difficulty. The games didn't depend on knowing what someone else was saying.

But when the games got more language oriented, Melissa had trouble keeping up. She was shut out, not just from the game but from learning the give-and-take and social skills that go with it.

Melissa's siblings know some sign language, but she reads lips most of the time. Her mother says it's easy for Melissa to miss some key piece of a conversation, so that when she jumps in, her comments are totally off the subject.

It's hard enough to deal with at home, and even harder at school and in the neighborhood.

"She's very much a normal kid," Mrs. Turner says, "but without this opportunity to socialize, she would be very lonely."

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