Inspired students dedicated to deaf awareness

ASL Club students reflect on their experiences. Kneeling from left are Casey Foto and Devrie Duncan. Standing are Jacob Watson, Luke Wenneborg, ASL Teacher Erin Knapik and Joselin Rangel. (Photo by Dana Delgado)

ASL Club students reflect on their experiences. Kneeling from left are Casey Foto and Devrie Duncan. Standing are Jacob Watson, Luke Wenneborg, ASL Teacher Erin Knapik and Joselin Rangel. (Photo by Dana Delgado)

By Dana Delgado

Many of the students who have registered for the American Sign Language class at Liberty Hill High School over the last three years probably did not realize the depth of the program and the richness of the curriculum when they first entered.

They likely never met the likes of Erin Knapik either, the unassuming but passionate ASL teacher and mastermind who has crafted a program framework that not only challenges students, but tugs at their heartstrings.

“I have always wanted to be a teacher,” said Ms. Knapik. “I am really passionate about sharing my love of language and culture. ASL is so complex and many people don’t realize how much different it is than English but I love spreading that awareness and knowledge, and seeing my students flourish.”

Ms. Knapik, however, is not just inspiring because of her work; she is an inspiration because of her perseverance.

In her last year in high school, Erin Knapik started to exhibit symptoms of diminished hearing. A medical evaluation revealed that tumors in her head were contributing to her hearing loss. With the help of a tutor and recording devices, coupled with her courage and determination, Ms. Knapik graduated from college with a teaching certificate. Her hearing, she says, is limited to hearing high pitched sounds like the voice of a young girl.

Besides learning the mechanics of sign language in Ms. Knapik’s class, students have the opportunity to participate in a student formed ASL Club that is dedicated to raising awareness and understanding of Deaf Culture and ASL.

The club further provides and promotes opportunities for ASL students to improve their language skills by offering skill building workshops, peer tutoring and volunteer opportunities in the Deaf community and at social events.

The community outreach for the last three years has centered on regular visits to the Jesus Lutheran Church of the Deaf, a noted Austin gathering place since 1931 where everyone can share their faith in American Sign Language as well as socialize.

With so much poise, confidence and determination and with such a clear vision, it is hard to imagine that doubt ever crept into the mind of Ms. Knapik but it did for a moment in her first year in the classroom.

“My first year teaching here I was only 22 and was doubting the positive impact that students would get from our weekly trips to Deaf church and was not sure if it was worth putting in a 16-hour Wednesday,” Ms. Knapik recalled. “We were on our way back from a volunteering trip and one of the freshman level first-time volunteers was sitting in the front seat. The whole ride to church he was quiet and at church he was quiet but interacted a lot more than I thought he would. On the way back he suddenly sighed and said, ‘Ms. Knapik that was awesome. I learned so much and I can’t wait to go back.’”

She never doubted herself again.

“That is the reason I keep putting in the 16-hour Wednesdays so that they can continue to get the experience of interacting with the Deaf community and why I push them to go to workshops and improve their skills,” she says with conviction.  “It’s worth it.”

With its commitment to community service, the Liberty Hill ASL Club has distinguished itself as a notable organization by the Deaf community as well as the professional community.

On Jan. 25-26, the club was invited to participate in a generally “professionals only” AllyASL workshop in Fort Worth that also included Keith Wann’s ASL Comedy Tour.  As a hearing child of Deaf adults, Wann is an original breakthrough performing ASL artist who has been featured in several short films with ASL, Pepsi commercials, “Law and Order” television series and who has performed all over the country for over 20 years.

“Students did an amazing job,” said Ms. Knapik. “They participated in all of the workshops; even standing up in front of the group to sign songs and participate in exercises. All of the event organizers and presenters were very impressed not only with their skills but with their manners throughout the entire event.”

Ms. Knapik said that students also spent an entire day in a school-like environment signing with experts in multiple areas.

“The workshops were full of incredible information about signing songs, interpreting stories for children, and storytelling while interpreting songs,” the LHHS ASL teacher said. “They went to lunch with AllyASL after her workshop and had a chance to socialize with ASL and interpreting professionals and learn more about Deaf Education. They showed amazing skill and maturity throughout the entire workshop and contributed on the same level as the adult participants.”

All the students that made the trip agreed it was a “great experience and fun.”

Their invitation to Fort Worth speaks to not only the work of Ms. Knapik but the growth and dedication of her students.

“I remember my first week in my ASL class,” said Luke Wenneborg, current president of the ASL Club who has been a member since his freshman year and is currently a junior in ASL 3.  “I learned the entire alphabet.  It struck something in me.  Every time we go to the church we make friends.  Being in the ASL Club has been a very good life experience.”

Ms. Knapik said Wenneborg’s sister was also an officer before him and his little brother has gone along with the group on volunteering trips to the Deaf church. Last year he and Morgan Stiles competed in the Spooky Skedaddle Signed Song competition at Texas School for the Deaf’s Language for All 5K and got first place.

Senior Casey Foto who is Vice President of the ASL Club and who led students in a signed performance of the National Anthem at the Homecoming football game as an ASL 1 student, says she “first discovered ASL as a sophomore and fell in love with it.”

“It has become a huge and influential part of my life,” Miss Foto said. “It has given me a career and a future of doing what I love.”

Casey ran in this year’s 5K at Texas School for the Deaf’s Language for All festival and participates heavily in all ASL activities. She wants to be an interpreter. Last year for our ASL Honor Society banquet, she acted as interpreter for the entire program.

Sophomore Jacob Watson, who is in his second year, calls Ms. Knapik “a great teacher” and says that the “ASL program has become my entire life.”

“It’s fun and I have found sign language to be a cool thing and have met many cool people,” Jacob said.  “You don’t really understand their world until you start communicating with them.  I’m more understanding now.”

According to Ms. Knapik, Watson has volunteered almost every Wednesday since his freshman year and is very involved in the club. He attends all of our Deaf events and is “a very skilled signer.”

Devrie Duncan said Ms. Knapik was her older brother’s favorite teacher so she wanted to find out herself.  The sophomore, who has a brother that is deaf, says she would like to become an audiologist.

Devrie has been an active member of ASL Club for two years. She has volunteered with the Deaf community and participated in the Deaf History Month field trip last year at TSD. She is very active and involved in all of the club events.

“I never knew there were deaf communities,” said Junior Joselin Rangel.  “I’m not in my little bubble anymore.  We are grateful to have Ms. Knapik teach here.  She’s been simply amazing and the club has been a fun thing to be in.”

Ms. Knapik says Miss Rangel is also fluent in Spanish and eventually wants to be a trilingual interpreter for the Texas School for the Deaf.

“Last year she (Joselin) shadowed one of my friends who is an interpreter at TSD and was able to see what the job would entail,” Ms. Knapik said. “She has also started to learn Spanish sign language and is incredibly skilled.”

Watson is the Photographer for ASL Club and has been a member since the beginning of his freshman year. He is a sophomore in ASL 2 now and previously served the club as treasurer.

Lucas Christianson is a junior and is in ASL 3. He started attending events this year and has been active in the Deaf community and is very active in ASL Club. He previously served as club photographer.

Cat Hoffpauir is a sophomore and is in ASL 2. She has been a member of ASL Club for two years and has volunteered in the Deaf community and at Deaf church. She wants to be an interpreter.

Other ASL Club members include Records Keeper Hannah Wright and Treasurer Savanna Barnard along with Lucy Miller, Kaitlyn Hesskew, Evan Tulp, Kristina Kelley and Gaby Stephens.  Other members are Katy Warner, Hannah Wright, Megan Huppee, Makenna Savage, Adrian Ussery, Layne Bolin, Maddi Engelhaupt, Sarah Steffen, Madeline Brand, Leslie Wofford, Easton Porter and Ceilidh Girod.

Other members include Macy Vitale, Justin Johnson, Blair Lord, JJ Mars, Morgan Stiles, Madi Cochran, Taylor Duncan, Kelsey Morgan, Marsy Rosas, Rebecca Frazier, Zach Baden and Clayton Drake.

“I’m proud of them all,” said Ms. Knapik.  “They are great kids, learn quickly, and are making a difference.”