SIDNEY — Twenty years ago, two high school students who felt lonely and disconnected at times had a single idea to help bring students together from throughout Michigan who they could easily relate to.
Amanda Bogart and Dan Kauffman attended Central Montcalm High School, but unlike their peers, they were deaf.
It was often difficult for them to engage socially with the majority of other students, as they both communicate through sign language.
“I was 14 years old when the first Deaf Pride Day started,” Bogart said. “I was deaf and felt very lonely. There weren’t a lot of deaf kids in the area and I told my teacher that it would be really cool if we just had one day when we are all together.”
So when the two students asked their teacher for the deaf, Diane Harris-Basom, about bringing deaf students together for one day so they could socialize and be together without any kind of language barrier, she reached out to other school districts.
Before long, the first Deaf Pride Day was celebrated in 1994 with about 25 students in a small classroom.
Fast forward to present day, and Deaf Pride Day far exceeds the original thought of simply bringing deaf students together in a classroom setting.
On Friday, more than 100 deaf students and parents gathered at Montcalm Community College from school districts as far away as Owosso and Holland.
“I’m really happy to see kids still enjoying this day 20 years later,” Bogart said. “I brought my son with me today as well so he could enjoy it too.”
Bogart and Kauffman’s presence was a surprise to Harris-Basom, who is now in her 39th year of educating deaf students. Their presence at Deaf Pride Day was kept a secret from her until she arrived at the college.
“It’s gratifying,” Harris-Basom said of seeing her former students return to celebrate Deaf Pride Day 20 years after they started it together. “I’m so proud of them and what they’ve done. Just to be a little bit of a part of their lives, It’s gratifying.”
The day began with activities in the college gymnasium for all of the students to interact with each other.
Shortly after, students moved into a large conference room and enjoyed a presentation from guest speaker and sign language interpreter Janna Rowan of Dewitt.
Rowan recently cycled 1,216 miles with her friend Don DeBusk from DeWitt to Fort Worth, Texas, in order to raise awareness for the deaf/blind community, as well as collect donations.
For Rowan, it was an experience she said helped her to appreciate the obstacles that deaf-blind, deaf and blind students encounter each and every day of their lives.
“I can recall cycling up a hill at four miles an hour and I thought to myself, deaf/blind people do this in their lives everyday, trying to get to the top,” Rowan said.
Rowan said she was honored to be able to relay that message to the students on Friday.
“Any deaf person will tell you they are not disabled, it’s not a disability,” she said. “Today, Deaf Pride Day, this was about them being proud and celebrating who they are as a person.”
Interpreter Ellisha Cecil and several other of Harris-Basom’s students and staff handled much of the responsibilities of Friday’s events as Harris-Basom steadily prepares for her eventual retirement.
“I could not find more capable hands than theirs,” Harris-Basom said. “The baton has been passed to capable, steady, kind hands.”
Cecil said though the total number of students was down from last year, Friday’s events still brought together many deaf students from preschool through high school.
“We have all ages here, from preschool all the way up to high school, and all of them were very receptive of the presentation,” Cecil said. “It’s one of two days a year where they don’t have to rely on an interpreter. It’s a day where they don’t feel like they are living in a foreign country.”
For Central Montcalm senior Jeff Main, 19, who is deaf and has been attending Deaf Pride Day since he was a kindergarten student, the opportunity to play with young, deaf children, throwing them around in the pool and chasing them in the gymnasium, is something he will never forget.
“I always enjoy it here, I’ve been coming here since I was in kindergarden and I’ve grown up here, I’ve never missed a deaf pride day,” Main said. “I was a role model for the kids today, it was really fun. It was really fun to encourage them and to be able to play with them.”
Main said once he graduates this spring, he’ll continue to go to Deaf Pride Day to assist in any way he can.
“It’s very important because it helps deaf people not feel sad and alone,” he said. “Everyone is happy, has a good time and makes new friends.”