Signs of hope: Once abandoned in India, deaf Trumbull student 'took off like a rocket' in new home

TRUMBULL — At first glance, 10-year-old Teesa Arden and police officer Derek Laaser appear to be unlikely friends. But a second look reveals that their lighthearted banter is punctuated by rapid hand movements and realization that the two share a common understanding of the challenges of deafness.

Teesa, a fourth-grader at Booth Hill School who was born deaf, recently formed a bond with Laaser, who grew up signing to his deaf parents.

“It was really a chance to let her know that we are here to help her, and that there are people who are able to communicate with her,” Laaser said. “If she needs help, she can go to the police,” he said, cupping his right hand in a “C” shape over his badge, the American Sign Language sign for police and nodding at Teesa, who nodded back enthusiastically.

The reassurance carried extra weight with Teesa because she and her sister Teena, 12, have a harrowing background when it comes to authority figures.

Born in rural northern India, the two were found on the streets and taken in by nuns who ran an orphanage. Their adoptive mother Kay Arden said their parents likely abandoned them due to poverty. Teena remembers they had a brother, but does not know what happened to him, Arden said.

The two spent their childhood being moved from one orphanage to another, rarely getting a chance to interact with anyone except for orphanage workers, who sometimes abused Teesa for not being able to communicate, Arden said. At 8 years old, Teena was expected to help care for the younger children at the orphanage, Arden said.

The level of neglect the two girls endured became clear on the drive back to the airport, when Teena pointed to a cow on the side of the road.

“She said, ‘Look, a cow,’” Arden said.

The orphanage had told Kay, and her husband Edward Arden, the girls did not speak English.

Kay Arden said it was a relief to learn, so the family could communicate with her. But Teesa was not able to communicate, having likely been deaf since birth, Arden said.

But six months after arriving at her new home, Teesa received cochlear implant surgery and a whole new world opened up for her, according to Jill Angotta, a teacher for the deaf in the Trumbull schools.

“When I first met her, she had no language at all, none,” said Angotta, who described teaching Teesa as the toughest challenge of her career. At 6 years old, Teesa could only make grunting sounds.

A year later, with sign language integrated into her learning, Angotta said Teesa “took off like a rocket.”

“All of a sudden, she got it,” Angotta said. “And then everything, every word, she wanted to know what it means. She’s very motivated to learn.”

And the ability to sign led to her getting to know Laaser.

“Growing up with parents who were deaf, I just grew up signing,” he said. “I don’t remember ever being taught to sign or anything like that, that was just how it always was.”

In his time with the Trumbull Police Department, Laaser said he has been called to scenes to assist in communication and has shown other officers a few basic signs to be able to identify if someone needs help.

He said he became aware of Teesa through the school resource officer at Booth Hill School who suggested meeting the girl.

“We thought it would help make her feel more comfortable,” Laaser said.

Teesa’s comfort level has grown to the point of being able to correct her mother’s account of some family history, explaining her side of the story to Laaser in sign, which Arden is learning, but is far from fluent.

“After she got her cochlear implant, we were home and I had opened the door and she went outside, and then she started to walk away and I called out, ‘Teesa!,’ and she stopped and turned around,” Arden said. “Just, that she heard my voice. I hugged her and burst into tears, it was so overwhelming.”

Teesa recalls the story slightly differently.

“I didn’t cry,” she signed adamantly.

But in some other family moments, she demonstrates how far she has come in four years. Seeing Laaser thumbing through some family photos, she points out that even before she was able to form words, she was still communicating.

Pointing to a photo of her and Teena smiling at home in Trumbull, she compared it to another one when Kay and Edward came to the orphanage.

“In India, no smile,” she said.

deng@trumbulltimes.com