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FOR THE KIDS : Handy Work : Marcia Walter’s sign-language classes give children a way to communicate with deaf family members.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You might say Marcia Walter works with her hands. She teaches sign language to kids and adults through the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District.

Walter started the class a little more than a year ago, and it has become so popular that when the district’s winter session opens later this month she will be teaching three six-week classes.

She has students from 5 years old on up to 70. Most of the kids are there because a family member has a hearing problem, but some simply want to learn a new skill that is fun, and may come in handy someday.

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“The earlier they start, the better,” said Walter, 32, who lives in Simi Valley with her husband, Mark, and two young children. “Children can sign much easier than adults. They can learn it before they learn to speak.”

Walter herself was born with a partial hearing loss that wasn’t detected until she entered kindergarten.

As a child, she was withdrawn and had few friends. School wasn’t much fun. It was hard to socialize in groups because the noise level aggravated her hearing problem.

All that changed when she entered Cal State Northridge and took sign language classes. “I got in with the deaf community,” she said. “I had a lot of friends who were deaf and we all signed.”

Walter married, had two sons (4 and 2 years old), and settled into teaching at Simi Elementary School, where she worked with deaf children.

Everything seemed rosy until one fateful night in 1991. She and her husband were seated in front of a loudspeaker at a dinner-dance. When the music blared, she lost the hearing in her good ear.

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“It blew out my ear,” she said. “I was stone-deaf. I had to learn to adapt to a totally different world.” Tests were done, and she was told her hearing would never return.

Her youngest son was only eight months old at the time. “I just started signing with him,” she said. She was thrilled one day when he put his fists together, telling her he wanted more milk.

Soon he signed more than he spoke. She had to tell baby-sitters what he meant by different signs. After more than five months, he had learned about 25 words.

Then one day, Walter was at the grocery store when the woman behind her in line dropped a box.

“I heard it,” she said. “I was jumping up and down.” When her husband came home, she was singing to music.

“God took care of us,” she said. Now she can hear her husband sing in church again. She had given up her job at Simi Elementary and now teaches preschoolers at Grace Brethren Schools in Simi Valley.

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Her hearing is not quite as good as it had been. “I do OK on the telephone,” she said. “If there is background noise, I have a problem.”

Walter began teaching sign language through Rancho Simi Park and Recreation District when her hearing was completely gone. She had 27 kids and adults in the beginning class where she covered the alphabet and everyday words for things such as household items, food, family members, animals and colors. They also played games and sang songs using sign language.

“It’s very casual,” she said. “If you can’t laugh at yourself and have fun doing it, don’t bother.”

Beginner students learn 200-250 words. Many of the students in her beginner class have gone on to the advanced class, which is more rigorous.

“The minute they walk in the door,” she said, “they can’t use their voices.”

Other Kid Doings

Now is the time to sign up your kid for a class in swimming, art, acting or whatever. Park and recreation departments throughout the county and local community colleges are publicizing their winter-spring class schedules. Here’s a sampling:

In Ventura, kids 5 and up can see myriad monarch butterflies on a special walk Jan. 30 sponsored by Ventura’s park and recreation folks. On the same day, kids 3 to 12 years old can take an outdoor class in wilderness skills and learn what to do if they get lost or maybe are bitten by a snake. Call 658-4726 for details.

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SIGNING UP

Marcia Walter is teaching three six-week sign language classes through Rancho Simi Park and Recreation District, 1692 Sycamore Dr. The beginner class starts Wednesday and runs on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. The intermediate class begins Tuesday and runs on Tuesdays from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. The advanced class follows the intermediate class and runs from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. The cost is $25 per person, or $50 per family. For information about registration, call 584-4400.

The Oxnard Parks and Recreation Department also offers a class for youngsters 14 and older. For information, call 385-7995.

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