Independence teacher and student help toddler who is deaf learn American Sign Language

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INDEPENDENCE, OHIO (WJW) – An Independence High School American Sign Language teacher is helping students make connections to the community outside of the classroom.

It all started with an unlikely pairing between the president of the school’s ASL honor society and a toddler who is deaf for tutoring.

“It’s been really inspiring to watch the two of them and their relationship blossom,” said teacher Meg Popa.

Popa was tapped by a longtime family friend to help assist her son Barrett Hovanic-Weeda, 3, begin to learn American Sign Language.

Popa said she instantly knew the student to take on the responsibility during the pandemic shutdown last November.

“He’s honestly become like my family, and I love every bit of him,” said student Grant Sears.

Meeting virtually was a bit overwhelming at first Sears admits, realizing the weight of the responsibility he was taking on with Popa.

“It’s definitely pretty intimidating to know this is what you’re giving him, you’re giving him language,” said Sears. “I was going from student to teacher really quick.”

Hovanic-Weeda was born deaf and received cochlear implants around 13 months old. His family said he was struggling to communicate with them often leading to tantrums due to frustration. Ever since the tutoring sessions started, they noticed a dramatic change.

“He would have a lot to say, a lot to communicate but he wasn’t able to do that because he didn’t have the verbal skills,” said Samantha Hovanic. “Using sign language, he was able to then tell us what he wanted instead of yelling or getting frustrated.”

It’s a sign of growth the group worked months to achieve. Popa and Sears moved their sessions from the virtual world to reality, meeting the toddler at the park or zoo to teach him in person.

“He’s able to interact with the world around him instead of watching it happen around him,” said Popa. “He’s now involved in it and that is probably the best feeling.”

The trio plans to attend a conference, next month that will help Hovanic-Weeda have an even better grasp of sign language. His mother said she continues to be impressed by what her son learned so far, and he now communicates primarily through ASL.

“Grant, Barrett and I are going to go with the senior officers of our honor ASL society to Deafopia in Columbus and it will be Barrett’s actual first experience in deaf culture where he’s with the majority of people and not the minority among us,” said Popa.

As he continues to learn, Hovanic dreams of no limits for her son.

“I hope that he becomes fluent in both verbal and ASL because I think it’s very important for him to be connected to both communities,” she said.

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