At Carle's school for hearing impaired, graduation day full of sounds of success

At Carle's school for hearing impaired, graduation day full of sounds of success

URBANA — One mother has lived several hours apart from her husband and two daughters for almost six years, just so her young hearing-impaired son could learn to use his voice.

"He was a kid who couldn't say a word, and now he can't stop talking," said Leslie Kobernik-Pollack, mother of Henry Kobernik-Pollack.

After being turned down by all the hearing-loss programs in the Chicago area, Kobernik-Pollack discovered the Carle Auditory Oral School in Urbana was a place where her son would be able to receive life-changing therapy. She relocated from Evanston the next day.

"I told my family I'm moving to Urbana, and they all called me crazy since I had no idea where to live or work," she said. "I left my job, husband and two children up north to come here, and it has been the greatest blessing of my life."

That was more than five years ago.

"This was a kid who wouldn't tell me how he was feeling, and now he's expressing his dreams, and he's telling me when he doesn't feel well," she said. "I owe all of that to this program and what they have done for him."

Henry, 10, proved any doubters wrong when he walked in the 18th annual CAOS graduation Tuesday, where he presented a speech thanking his mom for "moving to Urbana and taking care of me."

Henry lost his hearing when he was 6 months old and could not pick up other methods of communication for five years of his life, his mother said. As a result, he received his first cochlear implant at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Although the device allowed Henry to suddenly be able to hear, programs near his hometown would not accept him due to the delay in receiving the implant, which is usually done before a child's first birthday, his mother said.

"We were starting five years behind, and that's no small thing," Kobernik-Pollack said. "It's been mind-blowing how responsive they have been to all of his needs, and he has a lot of them. He has a huge team willing to meet 100 percent of his needs all along."

During the beginning of treatment, Henry was receiving 15 hours of one-on-one therapy Monday through Friday during nine-hour school days.

Next year, he'll be entering Carrie Busey Elementary School in Savoy as a third-grader and will continue attending therapy at CAOS every day, his mother said.

"It's not that we want to leave; it's that we have to," she said. "We are really excited for the next chapter of his life. It's been really sad to leave behind what has become our family here."

Of the 34 children at CAOS, Henry is one of 17, ages 3 to 10, who will not be returning as students. Those graduating are usually children who are introduced to sound at an early age and have access to intervention before their third birthday, said CAOS Director Danielle Chalfant.

However, no matter what stage the child is in during the learning process, the program will always accept new members, she said.

"We meet children and families where they are," Chalfant said. "There are a lot of programs that base a child's eligibility on whether they can make their hearing disability unnoticeable in two years. We don't do that."

Chalfant, who has been at CAOS for 20 years, said money has never been the decision-making factor when considering a child for the program. A scale based on income and family size is used to make sure all families can have access, she said.

"In a lot of places around the world, children with hearing loss aren't able to have this opportunity," Chalfant said. "Celebrating graduation every year and seeing what these kids can do is the reason we do this. We are the lucky ones."

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