Teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing reunites with student after 40 years
When Joanie Cuffman Conner received a Facebook friend request from a woman she did not recognize, she did what most people would do: she ignored it.
But then, the woman, Karen Postma Jones, sent a second request.
"Something told me I knew her name, but I couldn't think of how," Conner said. "I sent her a message and said 'Hi, have we met before?' and she said 'Yes, I'm your first teacher.' We've talked every day since then."
Conner and Jones met more than 40 years ago, when Conner was just 18 months old. Conner lost her hearing at 6 months old due to spinal meningitis; Jones, a speech pathologist and teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing, was hired to work with her.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, Jones taught Conner to read lips and taught Conner's mother how to help a hearing impaired child, something she has done with hundreds of students during her more than 50-year career.
"It started, my mom said, when I was 5," Jones, originally of Fairlawn, said. "I would come home and my 3-year-old brother would say 'Are you going to 'tool'?' and I'd say, 'No, I'm going to ssschool.' My other brother would want my attention and would say 'Taren' but I wouldn't answer or I'd say 'It's not Taren. It's Kuh-kuh-kuh-Karen.'"
Change of plans leads to work with speech students
Although she loved teaching and even started a preschool for neighborhood children when she was 13, Jones decided to attend Ohio University to study journalism.
However, shortly before leaving for school, she had her tonsils removed and her doctor left her with a pamphlet with information about speech pathology and audiology. She studied journalism for one year at OU before transferring to Kent State University to study speech pathology and audiology.
Following graduation, she worked at the Speech Center at Children's Hospital in Dayton for two years and then went to the University of Southern California at Los Angeles to earn a masters in deaf education. While in California, she also worked with the John Tracy Clinic, an oral program for preschool aged deaf children and their parents.
"The most important thing is to get to the parent and say 'There's a way to help your kids become productive but you have to get them in a program.' You have to give them options. Some kids in an oral program go on to sign because it's more satisfactory, and for some it's easier to lip read," Jones said.
'It's a special kind of bond'
Jones, now of Tallmadge, returned to the Akron area in 1974, and worked with the United Services for the Handicapped and University of Akron, as well as offering private tutoring — which is how she met Conner.
They parted ways when Conner was 4 and was starting to be mainstreamed into Cuyahoga Falls City Schools. Jones kept up occasionally with Conner's late mother Delores Decker Cuffman, but fell out of Conner's life for about four decades until recently.
"I lost my mom two years, and I don't know if it's because of losing my mom and her being my first teacher, but she feels like another mom to me. it's a special kind of bond," Conner said.
Connection lasts a lifetime
Conner has also been able to connect with other hearing impaired adults who were taught by Jones, including Becky Bisesi Mocarski.
"Karen taught me how to talk through hours and hours of therapy, and Karen taught my mom what to do so that my mom did even more therapy with me," said Mocarski, who is now a project manager with the Ohio Department of Transportation.
Unlike Conner, Mocarski never lost touch with Jones, even having Jones at her wedding.
"My dad talked about her in his wedding speech. He made her stand up and said how she pointed them in the right direction and that I wouldn't be where I am today without her. She got a round of applause," Mocarski said.
"Both Joanie and I would probably be signing and not speaking as well as we do and thats because of Karen."
Soon Mocarski, Conner and Jones will travel to Dayton to meet more of Jones' former students.
"It's so wonderful because these are all lip readers and they've never met before. They've always been so integrated in the hearing world and they don't know a lot of other deaf people," Jones said. "It's so refreshing for them."
Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, email@example.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ.