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Serbians hope to replicate Mich. program for the deaf

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Novi — Kristina Djordjevic lifts her arms and belts out the lyrics to the Disney hit “Frozen,” known worldwide:

“Let it go, let it go....”

It is a remarkable feat, considering Kristina is deaf and cannot speak English. But she managed to say those words over and over and over.

The 7-year-old, decked out in a Frozen T-shirt and purple tutu, carries a “Frozen” backpack with blinking lights. She traveled almost 5,000 miles from her home in Belgrade, Serbia, to Michigan with her mom and two instructors of the deaf on a two-week humanitarian effort through Friday.

They’re here to discover whether a program for deaf children at the Holley Institute Family Village in Brooklyn can be replicated in Serbia.

Kristina sang the “Frozen” lyrics Friday while munching on gummy bears and coloring in a book as she waited to tour the new Van Elslander Surgical Innovations Center at Providence-Providence Park Hospital in Novi. The center may serve as a training site for Serbian otolaryngologists who can study the programs to enhance the work being developed in their home country.

Kristina was fitted with a cochlear implant in her left ear when she was 3, and she wears a hearing aid in her right ear, allowing her to hear and watch “Frozen” dubbed in Serbian back at home.

Iva Urdarevic, 41, a teacher at the Stefan Decanski School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a preschool though 12th grade school in Serbia, translated for Kristina and her mom.

“I liked meeting new friends,” said Kristina, who met other deaf and hard of hearing children during her visit at the Holley Institute Family Village. “And I liked riding the horses.”

Her mom, Svetlana Kostic, 38, said through the interpreter that she wanted to bring her daughter to the village to help secure a better future.

“It was more than I expected,” she said. “We have nothing like this at home. I was impressed with the drama and artwork and all the games for the kids. I hope Kristina will be able to learn, to speak well and to listen well.”

Ardis Gardella, executive director of the institute said, “Serbia is a recovering country, and far behind a lot of the world in services to those needed in their country. The teachers are learning a lot to take back to their country. Of course, the long-range goal is to build a village like ours in Serbia.”

While spending time at the 214-acre village, the group is learning American Sign Language and how to facilitate communication between parents and children, among other skills. The institute has hosted deaf students and adult artists from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Mexico and Canada.

Serbian teacher Alexandra Radevic, an instructor at the Stefan Decanski school, also speaks English and said the experience at the Family Village was “overwhelming.”

“After five days together, it was very cathartic because all the parents were sharing and crying and you get to watch and talk to them and listen to their fears,” she said. “It was wonderful to see them understand that they were not alone.”

Urdarevic said the goal is to try to create a similar village in Serbia.

“We’re a poor country, but we’re trying our best to help the deaf and hard of hearing children with what we have,” she said.

Kristina completed preschool for the deaf and hard of hearing in Serbia, and in the fall, she will attend a mainstream school.

The contact between the two countries was made by Crown Princess Katherine Karadjordjevic, whose father-in-law was the last king of Yugoslavia. She learned of the Holley Institute Family Village in June while visiting Dr. Daniel Megler, head of Lakeshore Ear, Nose, Throat Center in St. Clair Shores, and board president of the institute.

“He began talking about the Holley Family Village, he has visited many times and just is very impressed with the work being done there,” said Gardella. “Princess Katherine became enthralled with the work the village does with the deaf. She called me and spoke to me at length about coming to Serbia to assist their schools and programs. She asked if there was a possibility of any of her children and teachers comning to the village here in the U.S. We responded that we would be happy to collaborate.”

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