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LOFT Returns to the Capitol

AG Bell’s Leadership Opportunity for Teens – more frequently referred to as ‘LOFT’ – was back, in person, for the first time in a couple years.

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By Cam Ellis

It was an oppressively hot day when the students arrived. The stifling humidity of late-July in Washington D.C. can break even the strongest of spirits, but this week it paled in comparison to the excitement that buzzed and crackled in the air as the leaders of tomorrow filed into their rooms on Georgetown University’s campus. AG Bell’s Leadership Opportunity for Teens – more frequently referred to as ‘LOFT’ – was back, in person, for the first time in a couple years.

“Teens who are deaf or hard of hearing come from all over the country,” said AG Bell board member Ken Levinson, who is also the co-founder of LOFT. “They come together and they connect immediately. It makes them a lot more confident, so when they go out into the working world, they can achieve more success.”

The program, billed as a week of activities “dedicated to shaping and transforming the lives of deaf and hard of hearing teens by teaching them valuable skills” had, like most everything else, been held remotely for the last couple years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But now the students were back together, all of them more than willing to sweat through a few extra t-shirts if it meant not having to get on another Zoom call. There was no time to waste – the program only runs for four days, and the agenda made sure to make the most of it.

“We really jam-packed the four and a half days,” Farrah Matlock, AG Bell’s Youth Programs Coordinator, added. “It’s a lot that we’re doing. From morning to evening, it’s all pretty much planned.”

Jam-packed may be an understatement. The students arrived late in the afternoon, and by dinner time were already deep into the first round of activities. The rest of the night, spent in Georgetown’s McShain Lounge, was filled with icebreakers, bingo, and socialization. It was, by all accounts, a refreshing change from the breakout rooms and digital games that LOFT was limited to during the pandemic.

“Just being back in person for LOFT, I think that’s just such a huge deal,” Matlock said. “It’s been amazing to see these connections happen in the virtual realm, but it’s obviously very different. I mean, in person, I think that just kind of speaks for itself.”

Each day, from 8:00 am to 11:00 pm, was filled with bonding exercises, leadership-development programs, and more. There were team Powerpoint presentations after breakfast and pre-lunch debate sessions, but a large component of this year also focused on just letting the teens socialize with one another in-person. Getting them to relax and socialize through a computer screen was a challenge and Matlock – who had a huge hand in putting the entire event on – went into this year’s planning with a focus on that renewed face-to-face experience.

“[The kids] were like, can we just have a little bit more time for just free time hanging out? And I’m like, I, yeah, I totally get that,” she said. “Throughout the day, because it is a four-and-a-half day program, it’s jam-packed. But we don’t want it to be so jam-packed that, you know, let’s say there is someone that’s introverted – it might take them a little bit more time to get comfortable in a free-time, hang out session. So we just wanted to make sure that there’s a lot of opportunity for that.”

That’s why some of the less-traditional activities were such a hit, according to Matlock. They saw giant elephants and pandas up close at the National Zoo and the DC Improv Comedy Club came to campus and ran an afternoon of games. And, considering the conditions, anything was going to have a tough time beating the ice cream social.

“I’ve learned that there are many different ways to be a leader,” a student said. “Advocating for myself leads to many different opportunities.”

There was still plenty of structure, with the students interacting with a number of former LOFT attendees. The students heard from two notable speakers: AG Bell board member John Stanton and Irving King Jordan, the first person who was deaf to be president of Gallaudet University; they also received an in-depth tour of AG Bell’s office and the Volta Bureau. All in all, the four days were a tremendous reminder of the power that the LOFT program has, and – perhaps more importantly – the power of coming together in-person.

“The most significant thing I learned from LOFT is what it really means to have a true community,” one participant said. “To share knowledge and wisdom and topics outside of our hearing loss and to feel seen with other people with hearing loss.”

“I’m lucky I’m still in touch with the people from my LOFT session,” another added. “Since we’re able to talk to each other about struggles most other people wouldn’t understand. I am eternally grateful to have been offered a spot in this program.”

LOFT regresa al Capitolio

El día en que llegaron los alumnos fue especialmente caluroso. La humedad sofocante de finales de julio en Washington D.C. puede hacer que desfallezca el ánimo de cualquier persona, pero en esa semana apenas se notó gracias a la emoción que se palpaba en el aire a medida que los futuros líderes entraban en sus habitaciones del campus de la Universidad de Georgetown. El programa LOFT (Oportunidades de liderazgo para adolescentes) de AG Bell regresaba de manera presencial después de un par de años.

«Los adolescentes con sordera o hipoacusia proceden de todo el país», explicó Ken Levinson, miembro de la junta de AG Bell y cofundador de LOFT. «Se reúnen y conectan de inmediato. Les aporta una gran seguridad por lo que, cuando salen al mundo laboral, pueden desenvolverse mejor».

El programa, anunciado como una semana de actividades «dedicadas a enriquecer y transformar la vida de los adolescentes con sordera e hipoacusia enseñándoles habilidades valiosas», se celebró, como prácticamente todas las actividades, de forma remota durante los dos últimos años debido a la pandemia de COVID-19. Sin embargo, los alumnos volvieron a reunirse, más que dispuestos a sudar por la humedad del clima en lugar de tener que realizar otra conferencia de Zoom. No había tiempo que perder, ya que el programa tiene una duración de tan solo cuatro días y está diseñado para aprovecharlo al máximo.

«Realmente han sido cuatro jornadas y media saturadas», añadió Farrah Matlock, coordinadora de programas juveniles de AG Bell. «Son muchas las actividades que realizamos. Desde la mañana a la noche, todo estaba perfectamente planeado».

Es posible que el término «saturadas» se quede corto. Los alumnos llegaron a media tarde y, a la hora de la cena, ya estaban inmersos en la primera ronda de actividades. El resto de la velada, que transcurrió en la sala McShain Lounge de Georgetown, estuvo repleta de momentos amenos, juegos de bingo y actividades de socialización. Fue, según todas las opiniones, un cambio refrescante frente a las salas de descanso y los juegos digitales a los que LOFT se limitó durante la pandemia.

«Simplemente el hecho de estar de vuelta en persona en LOFT es una maravilla», aseguró Farrah. «Ha sido fantástico ser testigo de tantas conexiones en el ámbito virtual, pero obviamente es muy diferente. Quiero decir que estar presente en persona es un hecho que habla por sí solo».

Cada día, desde las 8 de la mañana a las 11 de la noche, estuvo repleto de ejercicios de desarrollo de vínculos y programas de desarrollo del liderazgo, entre otros. Se realizaron presentaciones de PowerPoint en equipo después del desayuno y sesiones de debate antes del almuerzo, pero un gran componente de este año se centró en que los adolescentes socializaran en persona. Conseguir que se relajaran y socializaran a través de la pantalla de una computadora fue un reto y Farrah, que tuvo un gran papel en la organización de todo el evento, participó en la planificación de este año con un enfoque en esta renovada experiencia presencial.

«[Los jóvenes] nos decían: ¿podemos tener un poco más de tiempo para estar juntos? Mi respuesta era que por supuesto, que lo entendía perfectamente», dijo. «Toda la jornada, debido a que se trata de un programa de cuatro días y medio, está abarrotada de actividades. Sin embargo, no deseábamos que lo estuviera hasta el punto de que un joven que fuese introvertido no pudiera tener tiempo para sentirse cómodo en una sesión de tiempo libre. Por lo tanto, nos aseguramos de que hubiera suficientes oportunidades para ello».

Por este motivo, algunas de las actividades menos tradicionales tuvieron tanto éxito, aseguró Farrah. Tuvieron la oportunidad de ver de cerca elefantes gigantes y osos panda en el Zoológico Nacional y el DC Improv Comedy Club acudió al campus y organizó una tarde de juegos. Y, considerando las condiciones climatológicas, no había nada que pudiera superar la fiesta del helado.

«He aprendido que existen muchas maneras diferentes de ser un líder», dijo un alumno. «La defensa de los propios intereses te aporta muchas oportunidades diferentes».

Aun así el programa siguió una estructura y los alumnos pudieron interactuar con varios asistentes previos de LOFT. Los alumnos tuvieron la oportunidad de escuchar a dos ponentes destacados: John Stanton, miembro de la junta directiva de AG Bell, e Irving King Jordan, la primera persona con sordera en ser presidente de la Gallaudet University; también realizaron una visita detenida a las oficinas de AG Bell y del Volta Bureau. En conjunto, las cuatro jornadas fueron un enorme recordatorio del poder que tiene el programa LOFT y, quizá todavía más importante, del poder de reunirse en persona.

«Lo más significativo que aprendí en LOFT es lo que realmente significa tener una verdadera comunidad», dijo un participante. «Compartir conocimientos, sabiduría y otros temas aparte de la pérdida auditiva y sentir que se nos tiene en cuenta con otras personas con pérdida auditiva».

«Tengo suerte de seguir en contacto con los alumnos de mi programa de LOFT», añadió otro participante. «Somos capaces de hablar entre nosotros de dificultades que la mayoría de la gente no entendería. Estaré eternamente agradecido de que se me ofreciese una plaza en este programa».

 

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