URBANA – It was surgery that first gave Christopher Caulfield the gift of hearing.
But it was a local school and therapy program for deaf children that gave him the ability to use his hearing, to listen and turn sounds into spoken language.
Now about to start eighth grade at Holy Cross School in Champaign, Christopher was the first student at Carle Foundation Hospital's St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf when it opened in 1997.
His parents, Tom and Jennifer Caulfield of Champaign, discovered he was profoundly deaf when he was a year old, and at 18 months old, Christopher had surgery to get a cochlear implant, a device that is implanted in the inner ear that works with a microphone and processor to provide a sense of sound.
Some 12 years later, a treatment room has been named in Christopher's honor in the brand-new building housing both the school for deaf children and Carle's pediatric hearing center.
The new building at 805 W. Park St., U, opened this week with a new name for the school, the Carle Auditory Oral School.
The Caulfields said an anonymous donor heard Christopher speak recently, and was so impressed by what he and the Carle programs accomplished that she wanted to give money for a space in the new building that would be named for him.
For many years, Carle's ECHO (Expanding Children's Hearing Opportunities) program – which includes both the school and pediatric hearing center – has been divided in two different locations. And both the school and therapy program have continued to expand and outgrow their spaces over the years.
The new $6.25 million building offered Carle a chance to design a space uniquely suited to children with hearing loss, according to Dr. Michael Novak, an otolaryngologist at Carle Clinic and a national leader in cochlear implant surgery.
It's also the first time the school and speech-hearing program will have a chance to work together in the same building and have the space they need to accommodate more children coming from both the local community and throughout the state, he said.
With more space, the school has been able to increase from four to nine classrooms and can double its enrollment from 23 to 54 students. It is set to open Aug. 12 with 32 children.
The school was also able to add another grade this year, and can now accept children from infants through second grade. The school also admits some normal-hearing children who attend it as a unique private grade school, and the interaction benefits both hearing children and those with hearing loss, Novak said.
The school occupies the second floor of the new building, and teaches kids the basics they'd learn in a public school – but with a language-rich, theme-based curriculum, Carle officials say.
The first floor houses the pediatric hearing center, which works to help parents make informed decisions about how their children will communicate and then works to develop those communication skills, Novak said. It has rooms for therapy and observation rooms where parents can observe both what's going on in therapy and in the classrooms via audio-video equipment.
Novak said the Carle programs strive to support families no matter what their circumstances, and the school never turns away children whose parents can't pay.
"We find a way," he added.
The school runs at a loss, with Carle hospital contributing nearly $548,000 last year to make up the shortfall. The hospital's owner, the Carle Foundation, is covering half the cost of the new building and Carle's fund-raising arm, the Carle Development Foundation, raised the other half through donations. The development foundation also gave the school $20,000 last year for playground equipment, teaching aids and books, Carle spokeswoman Gretchen Robbins said.
Early help is key
When Christopher Caulfield was born, hearing screenings for newborns weren't yet being done routinely at hospitals.
Today these screenings can help children born with hearing loss get the intervention they need early in life. Novak said babies begin hearing even before they're born, and even those children for whom hearing loss is found at birth are months behind hearing children in speech and language development.
The Caulfields recall the rigorous therapy Christopher received through the Carle programs that continued with family help at home every day after school. The demands were so great, Tom Caulfield jokes, the family used to call speech therapists "speech terrorists."
But the Caulfields consider all the effort well worth it.
Christopher gets good grades and is an avid basketball player. And if not for the wire running down the back of his head that is part of the technology helping him hear, his dad says, it would be hard for strangers to know he had a hearing disability.
"Most people have no recognition that he's deaf when his hair is longer," Tom Caulfield adds.
The Carle school "taught him things that most children would learn second nature, that he needed to be taught directly," Jennifer Caulfield says.
If he had his way, Christopher says, the classroom microphone that directs his teacher's voice at Holy Cross to his cochlear implant wouldn't even be used, because then he'd blend in completely with his hearing classmates.
He's considering a career as an athletic trainer, he said, but he's also interested in developing new products to help deaf children.
Meanwhile, if there's one thing he'd like to advise younger kids struggling to communicate with hearing loss, Christopher says, it's stick with it.
"Don't give up," he urges. "Because I sometimes wanted to give up."