Santa gets students’ holiday wishes in sign language

‘Twas two weeks before Christmas, and at Waimea Elementary School, there was excitement and teacher Angela Nagata keeping her cool. From the North Pole, she had gotten a call and a message that would bring joy to all.

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‘Twas two weeks before Christmas, and at Waimea Elementary School, there was excitement and teacher Angela Nagata keeping her cool. From the North Pole, she had gotten a call and a message that would bring joy to all.

Inside her classroom, children read stories, explored a globe and were busy making art while patiently waiting for a special holiday program to start. Then suddenly at the doorway, he appeared like a flash, a man in a red suit and his gift-filled stash.

Several students turned to friends, and using their hands, indicated a big white beard. They announced “Santa!” in American sign language. With a twinkle in his eye and not a sound, their visitor let his hands do the talking. He came to hear their holiday requests.

The 11 deaf or hard-of-hearing children were thrilled Thursday to find out jolly ol’ St. Nick spoke their language. Each child got a turn to tell “Deaf Santa” what they wanted for Christmas, take a photo and get an early present.

Keaau Elementary School fourth-grader Isaiah Cabral-Garmon has always believed in Santa and thought he was really nice. “What I like about Santa is he likes everyone and can talk to everyone. He also has a sleigh with reindeer, elves to help him wrap presents and a naughty and good list, which is pretty cool,” he said. “I also liked how he helped all the deaf students today by saying their Christmas wishes for all to hear.”

This was the first-ever Deaf Santa Christmas Program at Waimea Elementary. It was organized by Nagata, who received tremendous support from Principal Scott Tamura, her Department of Education counterparts, her educational assistant Ashley Pacheco, Roxsanne Tomita of Deaf Mental Health Services and many in the community. While schools islandwide were invited to participate, only some Waimea and Keaau Elementary students could make it. There was also a child from the Zero-to-Three Program.

Nagata modeled Thursday’s program after the one she experienced as a teacher at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind on Oahu. For more than 20 years, public school children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing have participated in the Deaf Santa program, typically held at Pearlridge Center. The state DOE used to pay for neighbor island students and their teachers to attend the event, which was a huge deaf community gathering and celebration. But with the tightening of budgets, that option isn’t available, she said.

Oahu program organizers have offered a video conference option, and while it’s much-appreciated, it isn’t as good as the real thing. Nagata found that service is somewhat difficult for her students to communicate through via sign language, and at times, technical problems arose. She also wanted students to experience what the event’s main purpose — to bring deaf and hard-of-hearing children together to interact and realize they’re not alone. So, she planned a Big Island program, and fortunately, a Santa’s helper not only lived in Waimea, but was also a Waimea Elementary alumnus.

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When Keaau Elementary students arrived, Mikaiah Ventura, an 8-year-old Waimea Elementary second-grader, excitedly pointed out some had hearing aids just like him. Also in attendance were members of the island’s deaf community who led activities. Nagata hoped the encounter with these volunteers boosted the students’ self-esteem while also showing them that nothing is impossible and they too can be successful in life.

Nagata was grateful to all who made the program possible, including Elaine Pettit of The Blue Bus Photography, Domino’s Pizza and Hawaii Electric Light Co.’s Toys for Tots. To get involved with future programs or donate, call Nagata at 887-7636.

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