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LOFT in the Time of Coronavirus

Yet another of AG Bell’s annual highlights, the Leadership Opportunities for Teens (LOFT), remained unthwarted by the pandemic this July. Though the event moved online, it still brought together teenagers who are deaf and hard of hearing from around the country...

Written By: Rin-rin Yu

Yet another of AG Bell’s annual highlights, the Leadership Opportunities for Teens (LOFT), remained unthwarted by the pandemic this July. Though the event moved online, it still brought together teenagers who are deaf and hard of hearing from around the country and the world to develop leadership and advocacy skills, learn about technology and tools, and build lifelong friendships.

“The LOFT program was an amazing socializing event that allowed me to talk and meet people with hearing deficiencies from around the world and even near where I live!” said participant Emma S.

Originally planned to be a five-day program held in Washington, D.C., LOFT turned into a virtual event due to the pandemic. The selected group consisted of 40 teens divided into two sessions.  The virtual version took place as a six-hour program split across two days. Each part of the program was made into smaller presentations, rotated within the six-hour program, and accommodated the teens’ ability to stay engaged up to 10 to 15 minutes at a time before they begin to lose focus. For example, instead of introducing each participant in one part of the program, the introductions were scattered over the six hours.

“One of our LOFT counselors is a high school teacher, so he was able to advise us of strategies to keep the teens engaged,” said Ken Levinson, LOFT founder.

In a face-to-face LOFT program, the mix of people are determined based on geography, grade level, interests, and so forth. For the online version, Levinson said, the teens were separated by time zones to make it easier for the groups to participate. Three teens coming from India, Indonesia and Japan, unfortunately, found it more difficult to participate because the time difference meant sessions occurred in the middle of the night.

Typically, the teens also spend a lot of social time together. Activities usually include “group dinners, a museum, a DC monument tour, bowling, and a challenging activity such as rock climbing, etc.,” Levinson explained. However, because of the virtual experience, the LOFT leaders worked to include activities more suitable for a virtual environment.

“We added a group game that could be played virtually, and we also added a series of fun popcorn questions scattered throughout the six hours, where we asked the teens to respond to a poll,” Levinson said. “These questions were mostly in fun and allowed the teens to reveal parts of the personalities, as a group, in a different way.”

The goals of LOFT were not lost on the teens, either. “Being the only person who required hearing assistance in my family and one of the few in my entire school district, I never had anyone to confide to who could truly understand my challenges,” said LOFT participant Daniel Z. “However, attending the LOFT program this past summer was really an eye-opening experience that allowed me to realize there was a whole community of people just like me and helped cultivate many valuable relationships.”

The teens also expressed appreciation for the knowledge they gained in the technology sessions. “I learned options, such as live transcribing apps and different types of microphones, that I was not aware of,” said Emma S.

The virtual program was able to provide the needed skills and confidence-boosting experience in the midst of the pandemic. Levinson says that “one bonus was the ability to experiment with how teens do virtually and I think we did learn some things there,” such as setting up virtual opportunities as reunions after they participate in a live LOFT session to stay in touch.  Levinson prefers the live version and hopes to bring LOFT back as an in-person event next summer, if possible. This year’s participants have been invited to come back to participate in next summer’s LOFT.

Daniel Z. may participate next summer if that’s an option. “On behalf of many others, I can certainly say that while virtual, this year’s program was extremely beneficial and enjoyable,” he said.

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