- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) - Four-year-old Steshka Snyder could not sit, she could not wait.

With her dolly wrapped tight and her mom’s hand in tow, she briskly walked around waiting on someone she has never seen in person - Santa.

Snyder had something to tell him in American Sign Language - “I want My Little Pony.”

And this Santa, played by 21-year-old deaf college student Bradley Walker, understood every signed word and made that wish come true.

Walker, who graduates in May from Mountwest Community and Technical College with a degree in deaf studies, made many a child’s Christmas wish come true Dec. 12 at MCTC as the college hosted its 7th annual Brunch With Deaf Santa.

About 170 people from all over the Tri-State filled the decorated room for the unique event that features a Santa and elves all fluent in American Sign Language. Santa and his helpers visited with the kids and gave them presents from the children’s written Christmas lists that were submitted back in late summer and donated by area groups.

Steshka’s mom, Lee Dunlap, who was out in the hallway and on a hunt for the Mountwest lion mascot for a hug for Steshka, said her daughter, who was just diagnosed this year, was beyond excited.

“She has never seen Santa - ever. She has only seen him in the movies,” Dunlap said. “This year, she gets to talk to Santa and I am so excited. We have been showing her pictures of Santa and she knows he brings toys and she’s been practicing very hard to say, ‘I want My Little Pony.’”

American Sign Language program coordinator Leigh-Ann Brewer, who organizes the party each year with Linda Johnson, said since she and her husband could not have children, these children are like her own. She has interpreted and worked with many of them since they were born.

Brewer, an assistant professor at MCTC who has a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in deaf education from Marshall University, said the event is one that MCTC is proud to put on for the community of deaf persons and one that unites the MCTC family of programs.

On Dec. 12, MCTC’s Cooking and Culinary Institute served up a bountiful breakfast, the school’s early childhood education classes played games and ran craft stations, the physical therapy students donated toys, the student government did the decorations, and on the hottest Dec. 12 on record in Huntington, the ASL students took one for the team dressed as Elves in fuzzy and furry winter gear.

While the naturally-white-bearded Santa, Ernest Williams, was unable to attend due to illness, young Bradley Walker stepped into those boots and did not do so lightly.

“I accept the responsibility to help Ernest and want to be a good Santa and a good role model,” Walker signed and said through his interpreter, Erin Mills. “I want to continue the tradition and to show deaf children that deaf Santa knows - he signs. It is hard to control the excitement of the community having their Santa and giving deaf children the same opportunities to be the same as those with hearing.”

Gwen Bryant, of St. Albans, West Virginia, brought her 10-year-old son, Jackson, who was decked out in a Christmas sweater with blinking lights.

Bryant said it has been a holiday tradition of about five years for their family.

“For them to be able to tell Santa what they want is awesome and it is hard to find,” Bryant said.

Bryant, who runs the nonprofit group West Virginia Hands and Voices, said both the Santa event and the Mountwest program are quite rare in the region.

Brewer said Mountwest has students commuting up to two hours one way to obtain their one-year certificate in deaf studies. One of the state’s only other such programs is in Fairmont.

Rebekkah Bowen, a recent MCTC grad who hopes to become an interpreter in the school system, is in her third year of volunteering with the Santa event.

“I think not too many people here realize how many deaf and hard-of-hearing people are in the community,” Bowen said in between registering folks for the breakfast. “Through the centuries, many in the deaf community have felt isolated and not by their own fault. I am so involved now in the community and feel like ASL has changed my life and changed my life’s path. It is a whole new journey and community.”

To find out more about MCTC’s ASL program, visit https://www.mctc.edu/program/human-services-education/deaf-studies.


Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, https://www.herald-dispatch.com

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