Demonstrating once more that the fatal Oct. 27 shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue building in Squirrel Hill have left few, if any, parts of Pittsburgh untouched, students at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Edgewood have reached out to the Jewish community with a message of solidarity.
They delivered a photograph of the student body gathered on stage, the kids with their hands raised and their thumbs, index fingers and pinkie fingers thrusted forward in the sign for “I love you,” to Dr. Isaac Levari, a member of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and the school’s physician. Shot soon after they found out about the massacre, the framed photograph — which bears more than 150 signatures — represents the students’ spontaneous decision to join with the Jewish community in its time of tragedy.
“We were all together in an assembly and the kids wanted to do something to demonstrate support,” said Marybeth Lauderdale, the school’s director. “They thought it needed to be acknowledged.”
For the past 15 years, Levari has visited the school Monday through Thursday mornings, providing care for sick or injured students. Aided by Gina McDonald and Nancy Possumato, both registered nurses, Levari works in the school’s spacious health center. Of the approximately 200 students at WPSD, nearly 61 are residential students, so for those living on campus, sickness can be a frightening experience, explained Possumato.
Items such as games, oversized stuffed animals and televised content soften the health center’s potentially sterile feel. McDonald, who predates Levari’s tenure at the school by 11 years, spoke of a palpable sense of closeness in the health center and throughout WPSD.
“I came to the school as a mom,” echoed Possumato, whose tenure matches Levari’s. “I walked through the doors not knowing anything, and I was embraced as a mom, and then when I began working here embraced as staff.”
The school’s family feel is bolstered by a communal commitment to placing students’ needs first, said Lauderdale.
Levari agreed, and said that is why he decided to learn sign language years ago. “It helps me be a better doctor and it’s very gratifying.”
The benefit is mutual, explained Steven Farmer, the school’s CEO.
For students it is encouraging “to see a doctor who wants to communicate with them. This is part of the spirit of the school, to send a positive message.” It is also difficult to find many doctors willing to learn the language, and Levari should be praised for his willingness to do so, added Farmer.
Deflecting the compliment and his ability to fluently sign, the physician responded, “I’m like Moses, who spoke with a heavy tongue and had Aaron around.”
According to Farmer, the nonprofit, tuition-free school was founded in 1869 and has served thousands of deaf and hard-of-hearing children since its inception. The school, located at 300 East Swissvale Ave. on a 21-acre campus, follows state and national standards, “but in some ways provides more than public schools offer.”
Farmer touted the school’s print shop, television studio and math, science and technology center. WPSD has a diverse student body — ages range from 3 to 21 — and every effort is made to customize each child’s education in partnership with staff and families.
“We have kids who speak and hear really well and some kids who only sign. We meet children where they are,” he said.
Of every 1,000 children born in the United States, approximately two to three are born with a “detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears,” according to the National Institutes of Health. Of those, more than 90 percent are “born to hearing parents.”
At WPSD, 30 percent of teachers are deaf, said Farmer. Between small class sizes — the student-to-teacher ratio is 1:8 — and the fact that many staff members are WPSD graduates, there is a shared belief “this is a home away from home.”
School performances and American Sign Language classes have disseminated the school’s narrative by welcoming newcomers to WPSD. Similarly, partnerships and programs with area first responders and legislators have fostered connections, said Farmer.
That is especially why the events of Oct. 27 stung, said Rosie Santucci, a junior at the school.
“We are deaf and fully loved,” she said. “We are a small community like the Jewish community and we are both different in our own ways.”
Santucci said she has been “treated differently” by others because of her deafness, but that fact inspired her and her fellow students to act.
“We wanted to demonstrate we love the Jewish community,” she said, “and you have all of our support.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.