By ANGELA DELGADO, Tampa Tribune
Published: Oct 31, 2004
CLEARWATER – He taught them about the voting process; they taught him how to sign the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
So went Florida State Rep. Gus Bilirakis’ visit to Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf last week, where he spoke with students about the upcoming elections.
“It was fantastic,” Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said. “I was impressed with the school. I really learned a lot, and I plan to go back.”
Bilirakis talked to eight of the eleven children enrolled in the school’s first three grades.
The children excitedly introduced themselves to the politician, telling him their name, age, grade and when their birthday is, following the lead of student Tyler Church, whose birthday was Saturday.
The legislator gave the students packets of voting information and spoke about the “Nag the Vote” campaign by Nickelodeon, that urges children to stress the importance of voting in talks with their parents or voting-age siblings.
“Everything helps,” Bilirakis said. “If they learn from a young age, hopefully they’ll get out and vote every time” when they’re older.
Bilirakis also spoke about his own life experiences with the students. Bilirakis, like most of the students at Blossom, is hearing impaired, so he talked about his disability, too.
“I wear hearing aides and I do pretty well,” he said. “I’ve overcome my disability, so I want to be a role model and make it easier for them.”
The students thanked Bilirakis by signing the National Anthem, accompanied by music, and teaching him how to sign the Pledge of Allegiance.
“I thought it was wonderful, just a warm feeling in my heart,” Bilirakis said. “It was difficult learning [the pledge], so I have to go back and take [more] lessons.”
Bilirakis said he often visits schools when invited, and generally talks about his disability.
Elected to the state House in 1998, Bilirakis represents District 48 which includes all of Pinellas and parts of Pasco County. He was unopposed this election year.
In the last session of the legislature, he helped pass legislation that created the Florida Coordinating Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, an advocacy and legislative advisory board.
Blossom Montessori School is the only school for the deaf in the Tampa Bay area, and the only school for deaf children in the country that is open to hearing siblings and the children of deaf adults.
Montessori schools stress a visual approach to learning, and encourage independent learning by students at varying rates depending on ability.
“The [students] were fascinated when they learned that Rep. Bilirakis is hard of hearing,” said Michelle Robie, vice president of development for Blossom.
“The message he gave to them … was they can do anything they set their minds to do. I think when our students have a role model who is deaf or hard of hearing, the message hits home that much more.”