This is the story of 16-year-old Maria Mateo-Pascual and how enrolling at Seymour High School changed her life.

Maria was born in the Tzojbal village of Nenton in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.

From early on, her mother, Apollonia Pascual-Domingo, had little hope for her daughter’s future because Maria was born with profound hearing loss in her right ear and significant loss in her left, leaving her almost completely deaf.

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“Doctors told me she would never hear and never talk,” Pascual-Domingo said. “I was very sad by this.”

But the diagnosis didn’t make Pascual-Domingo love Maria any less. As a mother, she still wanted her daughter to have opportunities.

When Maria was old enough, her mother took her to kindergarten. After a few times of attending, she was told not to come back.

“Sadly, teachers refused to provide services and didn’t want to help because of her condition,” Pascual-Domingo said.

So Maria stayed home and never went back to school, Pascual-Domingo said. The family didn’t have the money or resources to address Maria’s hearing loss, and eventually, Maria’s father left.

After years of raising a child who couldn’t hear her mother’s voice and couldn’t say how she was feeling or what she wanted, Pascual-Domingo decided she had to do something drastic or Maria’s life would never get better.

Maria needed to be in school and be in an environment with other children her age, Pascual-Domingo said.

The two left Guatemala and came to the United States in April 2016. They had no money, few belongings and spoke no English, but Pascual-Domingo hoped a new start in Seymour would be the beginning of a better life for the both of them.

She had known others from Guatemala who had come to Seymour, and she was able to find a job and support here to provide for her daughter.

Because there was only about a month left of the school year when they arrived, and for fear they would be rejected again, Pascual-Domingo waited until this past fall to enroll Maria at Seymour High School as a freshman.

With the help of Seymour Community School Corp. translator Ana De Gante, Pascual-Domingo was able to explain Maria’s disability and lack of school history to special education staff, including special education director Mika Ahlbrand, teacher Jill Halterman and teacher Jay Cherry, who specializes in working with students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Pascual-Domingo hoped administrators would at least allow Maria to enroll and try to go to school.

But the school corporation did more than that. After a few months of being in a special needs classroom with other students, Maria started to change. She was happier and seemed to enjoy going to school. She also seemed to be learning and making friends.

“The first week, she was very timid,” Halterman said. “I didn’t hear much sound out of her, and she was very reserved.”

By bringing peer mentors into the room, Halterman said Maria opened up and fit in with them.

“She would make noises and try to talk and tell them stories, but they didn’t know what she was saying,” Halterman said.

So Halterman handed Maria a dry-erase board and markers and let her draw pictures to communicate.

“In one picture I have up in my room, she drew this beautiful picture of what I think Guatemala must look like,” Halterman said.

In January, after Christmas break, the school had Maria’s hearing tested, at no charge to Pascual-Domingo, to see if there was any possibility of helping her more.

“No one really knew how severe her hearing loss was because she had never been tested,” Cherry said.

Using funds available from the Jackson County Hearing Aid Fund for School-Age Children, Cherry was able to have Maria fit with a hearing aid for her right ear, allowing her to hear voices and sounds for the first time.

“She was nervous that day,” said De Gante, who also was there when Maria first put on her hearing aid. “But she was excited and she laughed and smiled. When Jay asked her if she could hear him and then I asked her in Spanish, she looked very surprised and was shocked that she could hear.”

The hearing aid fund was created in 2006 by three Seymour High School students, Ashley Smoljo Beavers, Amy Boger Smith and Josh Self. All three students served as mentors for younger children with hearing loss.

It is supported by donations from individuals and organizations in the community.

Around 20 students have received hearing aids from the fund since it was established, including four this year, Cherry said. The fund is managed by the Community Foundation of Jackson County and overseen by a committee, including Cherry, parent Susan Walter, teacher Debra Schneider, Stu Hackman of Brownstown, Carla Ault of Seymour, Amie Peacock of Crothersville and Amanda Newby of Medora.

The only requirements for a student to receive a hearing aid from the fund are they have to be a student in Jackson County, they have to have a hearing loss identified by an audiologist and they must have medical clearance.

Pascual-Domingo said it’s hard to describe how it feels knowing her daughter can hear and that there are other people in her life who care about her, love her and want to help her succeed.

“I feel very happy and very supported by the school,” Pascual-Domingo said. “Here in the U.S., people are so nice.”

She no longer feels like Maria is being left out and treated differently than other students.

“I don’t feel that my daughter is different,” she said. “I feel that I have many angels surrounding Maria in this school, and I’m very thankful for Maria’s teachers.”

Because of the support she is receiving, Maria now smiles and laughs more. She has developed social skills and has made friends, both with other special needs students and with peer mentors that spend time with her.

“She is very excited every day to get up and go to school,” Pascual-Domingo said. “Now, she has friends, and she never had friends before. She is so happy.”

And she is learning. Maria can identify words, is building her vocabulary and is working on pronunciation. She’s also learning sign language.

“She is saying more words, and she has changed,” Pascual-Domingo said. “She responds when you speak to hear, where before, she didn’t because she couldn’t hear.”

Halterman said with continued support, there is much Maria can learn and do for herself. She already is learning how to read.

“I know she knows what she’s trying to say, and we just have to figure out how to understand her,” Halterman said. “She’s very bright and catches on quick. We just can’t communicate with her on her level. But she works so hard.”

She also shows empathy to her classmates who have more significant disabilities than she does, realizing and identifying what their needs are and letting staff know, Halterman said.

During the school’s Power Hour lunch period, Maria now goes out into the school on her own to find her peer mentor friends.

“She’s becoming more independent and wanting to do things for herself,” Halterman said.

It’s not that she can’t learn, she was just never given the chance, Pascual-Domingo said.

“She has a lot of catching up to do, but she is doing better and better every day,” Pascual-Domingo said. “I didn’t know how good it could be for her, and I am so thankful for everything everyone has done for us.”

Pascual-Domingo said she doesn’t worry about Maria’s future anymore.

“One day, when I’m not here, she will do good,” Pascual-Domingo said.

At a glance

Send donations to the Jackson County Hearing Aid Fund for School-Age Children at the Community Foundation of Jackson County, P.O. Box 1231, Seymour, IN 47274.

You also may visit cfjacksoncounty.org/donate-now to make a donation by debit or credit card or through a PayPal account.

For questions or more information, call the Community Foundation of Jackson County at 812-523-4483 or email president@cfjacksoncounty.org.

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January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.