On a Thursday morning, middle schoolers Vanessa Powell and Clara Cegelka pondered superpowers. Susan Newman, a specialist with the High Desert Education Service District, asked the girls whether they’d rather have super-hearing or enhanced smell.

Both quickly choose the first option.

“I already can’t hear very well, so if I can hear better … I can hear if somebody got hurt, or I could hear people whispering; that would be fun,” said Vanessa, 12.

“Or if somebody’s talking, and I can actually hear what they’re saying instead of being like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally get what you’re talking about.’”

Vanessa and Clara, who are in the seventh and eighth grade at Pacific Crest Middle School, respectively, are partially deaf “reading buddies” in Newman’s Read With Me program, now entering its second year. The program helps 17 Central Oregon students who are deaf or hard of hearing connect socially with students who have similar hearing difficulties and boost their reading skills.

Through Read With Me, students can find classmates who can relate to their hearing-­related struggles.

“Some of my friends in Alaska, sometimes they would forget that I have hearing loss, and I would remind them way too many times,” said Clara, who just moved to Bend from Anchorage. “Sometimes, they would whisper something into another friend’s ear and start laughing really loud. … You can’t really understand what they’re saying.”

Newman has spent 37 years teaching deaf or partially deaf students, 28 of those years in Bend. Because hearing difficulties can make reading a challenge and leave students “somewhat isolated,” Newman matches every kid in the program with one or two reading buddies. The groups read the same book and discuss what they read with each other through letters, email and FaceTime conversations.

Most partners are in separate schools — Vanessa and Clara are the exception, and their third reading buddy, Abby Lewis, is at Pilot Butte Middle School.

Read With Me works with students from kindergarten to high school in Bend-La Pine, Redmond, Jefferson County and Crook County school districts and has grown by five students since its inception last year.

Last year, the High Desert Educational Service District gave Newman $3,000 to start the program. The money went toward books, as well as an end-of-the-year social outing at Sun Mountain Fun Center. Because that grant only lasted one year, Newman reached out to more organizations this summer and snagged two $3,000 grants — one from Quota International of Central Oregon, a social club that partially focuses on hearing and speech impairments, and West Coast Haunters Convention, a Halloween-themed nonprofit that donates to autistic and deaf-centered programs. The extra funds should allow Newman to buy more books and have three social outings instead of just one this year.

Both Vanessa and Clara said being partially deaf can make being a teenager difficult, both in class and with friends.

“If the teacher just started talking quietly, I’d have to ask them to repeat it, or ask somebody else,” Vanessa said. “Some teachers will be like, ‘Why weren’t you listening?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I was. I just couldn’t hear you.’”

The girls met at the beginning of the year, but they both said they enjoyed having a friend who has similar hearing difficulties.

“I think it’s cool to have somebody you can find things in common with,” Vanessa said. “Somebody who understands you and what you’re struggling with, with hearing stuff.”

They talk about more than just their hearing: Vanessa and Clara said they recently bonded over the fact that their families each got a new puppy.

Vanessa and Clara meet once a week with Newman, but some students have two sessions a week, like second-­grader Jaxon Gilbert, who attends Tom McCall Elementary in north Redmond. Jaxon and Newman spent Thursday afternoon discussing the classic picture book “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” and Newman had Jaxon, 7, draw his own adventure using a purple crayon — he chose a hot air balloon flight.

Newman said Read With Me has definitely improved Jaxon’s reading skills over the past year.

Newman, 63, said she took an interest in students who are hard of hearing after volunteering in a Pennsylvania state mental institution when she was 15. There, officials couldn’t communicate with a girl because they took a long time to identify that she was deaf.

“They didn’t have the resources then to figure out what was wrong with her,” Newman said. “It was discovered that she was deaf, and we began communicating using sign language, and it just sparked my interest for doing something in the field.”

Last year, Newman created Read With Me after wanting to try something different with the students she’d worked with for years.

“I’ve always been interested in children’s literature,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do a program that would bridge the gap, educationally and socially, with this population. I thought this would be a perfect way to bring kids together.”

After a couple more years focusing on Central Oregon, Newman said she hopes to extend Read With Me statewide. Later this month, she’ll host a workshop in Salem to promote the program.

“Hopefully, with the resources that I have, I can help and support other (Educational Service Districts) to do the same thing, and the program expands statewide, and perhaps even more from there.”

—Reporter: 541-617-7854; jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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