1996: CCHAT’s First Year
CCHAT is preparing to enter its 25th year of providing listening and spoken language services to children with hearing loss. Today, the program serves roughly 60 students every year on campus and hundreds more through mainstream services in the surrounding school districts.
It is quite the transformation for a program that started with 12 kids and did not even have an exclusive home when it opened in 1996.
CCHAT was the brainchild of Kathy Sussman, who in 1996 was serving as the director of the Jean Weingarten Peninsula Oral School for the Deaf in Redwood City. Kathy aimed to open a sister school in the Sacramento region. Her mission of teaching children who were deaf and hard of hearing to listen and speak was not one with universal support.
Marie Lopez, now Marie Jeannette, was one of CCHAT’s first two speech-language pathologists (SLP). She remembers not knowing much about the program and having several concerns about CCHAT’s long-term sustainability.
“When I told many of my peers and previous co-workers about my new job, they were very discouraging with the overall ‘It can’t be done’ feeling,” Marie recalls.
Nonetheless, Marie, who was working as an SLP in Washington, applied because she was intrigued by the possibilities. She was joined by fellow SLP, Cindy Garcia, who was also inspired by the mission of CCHAT.
“I went to visit the Weingarten school and was astonished with their teaching and how the students were thriving,” Cindy remembers. “It was fun for them and they were happy and smiling. I heard they were opening a school in the Sacramento area, and I immediately inquired and applied.”
Finding a Home
With a staff taking shape, the next step was to find a home for CCHAT. The La Sierra Community Center, formerly a high school, was chosen. CCHAT converted two old high school classrooms into two preschool rooms, two speech therapy rooms, an observation room, a small office and a small supply room.
“The school was created from the ground up,” Cindy said. “We went shopping for office supplies, school equipment and toys. It was fun to browse catalogs and imagine how we would use the different toy items.”
Bringing Children to CCHAT
Getting students to come to CCHAT was another struggle. Many districts were resistant toward sending children to CCHAT -- the program had no track record of success, and the financial commitment and shift in ideology required by the districts were formidable obstacles.
But the persistence and dedication of CCHAT families, who were willing to fight to get their children into the school, ensured that the program would have students. The initial class began with 12 kids.
“The thing that stood out to me the most was the family commitment that the parents had bringing their children to our school,” Cindy remembers. “They embraced the teaching and attended parent education nights to learn how to talk to their children at home and teach them how to listen.”
The Early Days
With two teachers, Lisa Sheaffer and Diane Durston, joining Marie and Cindy, CCHAT began its journey. Lisa helped gather information about the students by visiting their homes, and Diane helped use this knowledge to form monthly themes, teaching strategies and therapy ideas.
Many CCHAT staples that remain today were instilled in that first class. Daily music, one-on-one speech therapy and a heavy emphasis on making every activity a language opportunity all began with that 1996 group.
“Since the rooms were so small, we all made a small circle in the mornings for music on the strip of grass between the buildings,” Marie said. “I remember singing and dancing with students and parents to the popular song of that year, The Macarena.”
With limited resources, CCHAT’s lessons were simple, but full of language enrichment. Staff explored how much fun and language could come from a simple paper bag filled with small household items or toys.
“When students left for the day, I remember lots of prep work for the following day as we were making a lot of our own materials to teach,” Marie recalls.
It didn’t take long for everyone involved with CCHAT to realize the impact this program could have on children with hearing loss.
For Marie, that moment came early in the 1996 school year. A student with whom she was working with had shown little to no reaction to sound up to that point. Regardless, Marie continued to work daily to find ways to engage her in language activities.
One day, this young girl spontaneously responded to an art lesson and showed Marie that she had been processing all of the information she was receiving.
“That was my ‘A-HA!’ moment,” Marie said.
Marie looks back fondly at all of those first students and treasures the milestones they were able to reach together at CCHAT.
“My best memories of CCHAT were the miracles that seemed to happen on a daily basis,” Marie said. “The transformation of lives, for both the children and parents, was amazing to witness.”
Cindy also felt blessed to be a part of CCHAT’s first class. She and Marie both left CCHAT at various points in their careers, but both returned because of the relationships and success fostered by the program.
“CCHAT is a special place where you feel part of a team,” Cindy said. “It's a concentrated effort of different professions who come together to fit the needs of the children with hearing impairments and opens the door for them to achieve all that they can.”
CCHAT has become the region’s premier resource for listening and spoken language development in children with hearing loss. Its Rancho Cordova campus houses five classrooms, five dedicated speech rooms, a professional audiology booth, a music room and an expansive playground. The program has a staff of 11 teachers, five SLPs, two on-site audiologists and a comprehensive team of instructional aides and assistants.
It is amazing to think that it all started 25 years ago in that makeshift school house at La Sierra Community Center.
You can check out all of CCHAT’s current programs that have evolved over the last 25 years here.