Video+Story: Hillside Students Visit Signing Santa, Learn Life Skills During Mall Visit

Students in the deaf education program at Hillside Elementary School got a real-life lesson in navigating the world this week when they rode Sun Metro to Basset Place and even shopped for Christmas presents without the help of an interpreter.

The Regional Day School Program for the Deaf (RDSPD) students climbed on a city bus headed for Bassett Thursday morning before using skills they learned in school to order pizza and do some shopping at Target. The trip included a visit to a Santa Claus who knows American Sign Language.

“We teach them what do you do when you go shopping or want to order something in the food court and there’s not an interpreter there or someone who signs,” said Jason Lilly, facilitator for the RDSDP. “These are all skills that they have to learn to navigate a hearing world.”

The field trip was funded through an Eyes for Independence grant.

Fifth-grader Ramoncito Sanchez enjoyed his bus ride and adventure at Bassett.

“It was a good experience and it makes you more mature,” he said through an interpreter.

His mom Vanessa Banuelos, who also grew up in the RDSPD, joined her son at Bassett. The mother and son both spoke through an interpreter.

“Remember son, I’ve taught you that it’s important to learn how to take the bus,” Banuelos told Ramoncito. “I’ve taught you to be independent for your future.”

Ramoncito slyly responded to his mom: “It’s not easy but I’ll be learning.”

The visit with Santa was the highlight of the trip to the mall for Ramoncito.

“I felt excited to see Santa. He signs,” Ramoncito said, flashing a big smile. “I like a Santa that signs because I’m deaf. He knows there are deaf people here. It easier to communicate with him.”

Ramoncito’s visit with Santa flooded Banuelos with memories from her days at Hillside.

“It touches my heart,” Banuelos said. “He connects with all the kids here. They can relate to him because he signs and they sign. The kids know ‘that’s my language.’”

After the visit with Santa, the students headed to the food court for lunch. Most lined up at Sbarros for a slice of pizza, while others went to Subway. Many brought sheets of paper showing what they wanted to eat while others used their best voices to communicate their order.

“I asked for pizza with pepperoni,” said Jesus Jasso, using his voice.

His mom, Claudia Jasso, sees the value in field trip and the skills it teaches her son for the future.

“I like that they show them how to order and do these things because it is a lot more difficult for them,” Jasso said. “My son can speak but you can’t always understand what he saying so they help him write what he wants.”

Santa also was the highlight of Jesus’ visit to the mall.

“I was happy to see Santa,” Jesus, who asked for Legos, said. “It made me feel better because he knows what I want.”

His mom had already taken him and his hearing twin brother to see Santa but this experience made a world of difference to Jesus.

“Here he doesn’t have to struggle telling him what he wants,” Jasso said. “He feels more comfortable signing to Santa.”

The visit with Santa also served as a learning opportunity for the students.

“The speech therapist works with them to create that sentence structure so that we’re using English structure as they tell Santa what they want,” Lilly said. “The whole event is truly a learning experience for them.”

Lilly said the annual event also promotes the services available at RDSPD for parents of deaf infants and preschoolers.

“It’s a time of the year when the rest of the community actually gets to see what we do on a daily basis,” Lilly said. “We have a poor early identification here in El Paso so having this event actually helps promote the Regional Day School Program for the Deaf so people know we’re here and we can start helping provide that service.”

Story by Reneé de Santos | Photos by Leonel Monroy  | Video by Raymond Jackson/EPISD