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Plainfield HS student helping Sunny Hill residents communicate with sign
Tammy Reiher
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Plainfield HS student helping Sunny Hill residents communicate with sign

“We wish you a Merry Christmas,

We wish you a Merry Christmas,

We wish you a Merry Christmas

And a Happy New Year.”

    JOLIET -- “Stack your fists… and go around,” Madison “Madi” Curran instructs her class, teaching the students the sign for “new year.”

The 17-year-old Plainfield Central High School student and her mother, Penny Curran, have been traveling to Sunny Hill Nursing Home of Will County every Tuesday afternoon for about 18 months, where Madi, with Mom at her side, teaches sign language to residents.

Fresh off of a performance at the Veterans Recognition Ceremony on Nov. 3, where the group signed to My Country Tis of Thee, I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You and God Bless America, the class is preparing for its next performance.

The group, four women on a recent Tuesday afternoon, will perform a trio of Christmas carols during the Home for the Holidays event from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10. The signing carolers will travel to each of the floors, or Avenues as they are called at the county-owned nursing home, and perform We Will You a Merry Christmas, Jingle Bell Rock and Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas.

Their numbers will bookend the Irish dancers who will also be performing, giving the dancers a break from their demanding routines.

Merging interests

Were it not for two of Madi’s interests, it’s safe to say this class would never have materialized.

Madi said as a freshman in high school she wanted to take French, but had problems conjugating verbs.

Her mother suggested she take American Sign Language. The Currans lived in California when Madi was in first grade and her teacher signed a song to the students every morning. Penny reminded her daughter how much she enjoyed that.

Now in her fourth year of American Sign Language, she is a teacher’s aide.

She also has been taking Irish Dance for the past decade. It was through her dancing that she first came to Sunny Hill for a performance and she will be performing again on Dec. 10.

Soon after, she started volunteering in the facility’s Sweet Shoppe, dishing out ice cream on Saturdays. It was then she noticed how some residents struggled to communicate and decided to help. Her sign language class was born.

    “Making them happy is what I’m here for,” said Madi. “… to help them communicate is what I’m here for.”

Among the first signs she taught them were pain, emergency and please.

When it all comes together and the women remember their signs, she said she feels like a mom. Or when they start putting signs together by themselves.

    “I feel like that proud soccer mom who sees her kid score their first goal,” she said, adding how they have all become friends.

    “They’re my ladies. We’re all like a family now.”

And she takes care of them like family. In American Sign Language, when there isn’t a sign for a word, the word is spelled out, she explained. Those movements are too small for the residents so she adapts signs for them to use.

Penny said that when the class started, the residents didn’t know each other, but now were planning to get together and practice on their own.

    “We’ve got several ladies who say they want to do it and then don’t,” Penny added. “But they’ll sit on the sidelines and sign along.”

It’s not just the residents who will benefit, said Danette Krieger, Activity Director and Volunteer Coordinator at Sunny Hill.

    “As a next step, we’d like to offer basic sign language to our staff,” she said.

Sign of the future

Madi, who hopes to become a trauma surgeon in a major metropolitan area such as New York, has already been accepted into several area colleges. She doesn’t know which one she will eventually attend, but she knows that for the foreseeable future she will continue teaching her class at Sunny Hill, working it in around her college courses.

Her devotion earned her the Youth Volunteer of the Year Award at Sunny Hill in June.

    She is modest about the award, saying, “There are people who do more for the community than I do.”

    The class always ends with warm embraces. “Give me a hug, beautiful,” Madi says, beginning her good-byes. “I’m so proud of all of you. From the Veterans Day (ceremony) to this, I’m so proud of you.”

Sunny Hill Nursing Home is led by Administrator Karen Sorbero and is under the office of Will County Executive Larry Walsh. For additional information about the facility, go to www.willcountyillinois.com or find it on Facebook.

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