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Meet Theresa 'Tessie' Evans, Nanwalek's first Deaf graduate

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Ann Evans
Teresa "Tessie" Evans poses for a photo in her graduation regalia

The village of Nanwalek is located near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, about 23 miles southwest of Homer. It is a Native Alaskan village that is mostly Sugpiaq, although many residents come from mixed backgrounds. Nanwalek is accessible only by air or water. The village of around 250 people has one school that serves kindergarten through twelfth grade. This year six seniors graduated from the school. Theresa Evans, who goes by “Tessie” was one of these six. But her experience was a little different than her classmates. Tessie was born partially deaf.

“It's hard to believe that I'm going to be the first Deaf student to graduate from here,” said Tessie, speaking through her interpreter, Crescent Naderhoff. Naderhoff communicates with Tessie remotely on ZOOM or Skype using American Sign Language. For our interview, each question takes a few moments to elicit a response. First, I ask a question, then Naderhoff signs to Tessie, Tessie signs her response, then Naderhoff vocalizes Tessie’s answer.

Tessie's school classes followed a similar back and forth format.

“Other people can hear and write and take notes all at the same time,” she said. “But it's hard for me to take notes and look up and pay attention to the interpreter, and to all the other things that are going on in the classroom.”

Tessie is able to experience some sounds. She has a cochlear implant, which is a small electronic device that directly stimulates the nerve for hearing. Unlike traditional hearing aids which amplify sound, the cochlear implant provides a sensation of sound through electrical pulses directly to the auditory nerve. With the implant Tessie is able to enjoy her favorite music and video games. However, individual words are harder to decipher.

Outside of her family, Tessie says she is only able to communicate with a handful of people in the village. Sometimes this can be frustrating for her.

“I just don't like being the only deaf person in the village,” she said. “It's kind of boring at times.”

While Nanwalek School has had other deaf students in the past, many left the village to go to larger communities with schools that may have been more accommodating.

 “Yeah, it seems like that's been the norm in the past, you know, as the situation arises,” said Tessie’s father Tommy Evans. “And I think the parents kind of feel like they're at a total loss not being able to provide for their child.”

Tommy Evans credits Tessie's mother, Ann, for pressuring the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to allow Tessie to continue her education in the village.

He said his wife Ann, “basically told the school district that not she's not leaving. She’s not leaving, she's staying with her.”

He continued, “And so they kind of tailored everything around her. You know, with interpreters.”

Evans said everyone has been supportive, including the school district, her classmates, and the village.

“People really take the time out to acknowledge her,” he said. “And it's really helpful. Whenever there's a function happening here in the community, they always make sure that she is included in one way or another.”

Evans’ voice is full of emotion. It’s apparent that he is really proud of his daughter.

“She did really good. Just pays off having a strong Mom like that. Strong community, strong culture, strong beliefs.”

While Tessie said she doesn’t have any immediate plans for after high school, she is interested in art. She said she is looking forward to summer to go fishing and ride her bike. She plans to celebrate her graduation by having a barbecue with her family. When asked what she would want to say to a listening audience, she mentioned two things.

“I just want to say ‘thank you’ to Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for allowing me to come to school in my own village of Nanwalek,” Tessie said. “I also just want to say ‘thank you’ to all the people who have helped me through my life.”

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Originally from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, Desiree has called Alaska ‘home’ for almost two decades. Her involvement in radio began over 10 years, first as a volunteer DJ at KBBI, later as a host and producer, and now in her current role as a reporter. Her passions include stories relating to agriculture, food systems and rural issues. In her spare time, she can often be found riding her bicycle, creating art from handmade paper, or working in the garden.