Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Deaf teen wins Miss Hawaii's Outstanding Teen

From Maui News:

Wailuku girl Lena Merrill (pictured) may not have been able to hear the applause, but she felt the love when she was crowned Miss Hawaii's Outstanding Teen earlier this month.

And when the 14-year-old travels to Orlando, Fla., in August, she will be the first deaf person to compete for the national title of Miss America's Outstanding Teen in the pageant's history.

Merrill, who was born profoundly deaf, said she entered the pageant to compete for scholarships and to have a new experience, and that it was a "dream" to win.

"I cried," she said. "I was proud of what I accomplished by stepping out of the box and doing this."

Merrill spoke in American Sign Language for an interview at The Maui News, with mother Kaulana Merrill serving as her "voice."

Last week she recalled that, in the moments after the judges called her name, she didn't realize right away that she had won.

Her sign language interpreter got so excited that she started crying and "waving her arms all over the place," so that Merrill couldn't understand what she was signing.

Merrill now begins her "year of service" as Miss Hawaii's Outstanding Teen, where she plans to focus on spreading awareness about her platform: "quality education for all deaf children."

"I would like to see the system change, so we can bring it to a higher level for all children in Hawaii" - both deaf and hearing, she said.

Merrill said she struggled as a young child at Wailuku Elementary School, where she didn't have a deaf-education teacher who could help her understand her lessons. She fell behind in her English and reading skills.

"They had no experience in teaching a deaf-ed class," she said. "It was hard for me to learn."

That began to change when she moved to Maui Waena Intermediate School. Merrill's family credits Principal Jamie Yap for recognizing Lena's needs and arranging for a qualified deaf-education teacher to come from the Mainland to work with her. He also assigned her a certified sign language interpreter to be her voice in the classroom and on the playground.

"It made Lena feel perfect with the girls in the hearing world," father Jaye Carmen said. "They were able to communicate."

And, he said, Merrill has blossomed since she started commuting to Oahu in the 8th grade to study at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind. She boards at the school during the week and flies back from Oahu on weekends to stay with her family in Wailuku, and will be entering the 10th grade this fall.

Outside of her studies, Merrill plays volleyball for Kalani High School in Honolulu, and dances with Maui's Tava Nui, a Tahitian group.

"I love dancing Tahitian," she said. "The drums are loud, so I can feel it in my heart."

Merrill said she entered the Outstanding Teen pageant, which is staged under the Miss America and Miss Hawaii organizations, because she was interested in the scholarship opportunities and she wanted to stretch herself.

The biggest challenge was competing against hearing girls, she said. Merrill had to participate in an opening dance routine with all the other contestants, even though she couldn't hear the music. To learn the song, she pressed her hands against the speakers as they were turned up to full volume so she could feel the beat, then during the performance she watched the other girls and timed herself to their movements.

But Merrill's deafness didn't stop her from making close friends among her pageant "sisters."

"I taught them sign language," she said. "We were like a family."

For the competition, she was judged on scholastic achievement, an interview with the judges, a talent segment, lifestyle and fitness, and her answers to onstage questions.

Pageant director Raine Arndt said Merrill's talent was performing a "lyrical monologue," which she signed, about her experience as a deaf person.

Arndt said the judges were looking for a contestant with "that special something they feel would make her stand out on the national stage and be a great role model."

She said that Merrill made a big impression on the judges.

"On a personal level, I think she just blows you away when you meet her," Arndt said. "Her approach is not to be afraid, and I think she has a great way of showing people that there really is no difference."

As the winner of Miss Hawaii's Outstanding Teen, Merrill receives a $1,000 cash scholarship to the school of her choice. She also is offered a scholarship to Chaminade University worth more than $30,000, if she chooses to attend that school.

Merrill also won the title of "Miss Congeniality," for which she received a $250 cash scholarship.

She will now spend the next two months preparing for the national competition, which will be held between Aug. 24 and 28.

Arndt said there has never before been a contestant who was either deaf or hearing impaired that won a state crown and advanced to the national Outstanding Teen pageant, which she described as "sort of the Miss America of the teen world."

People who are profoundly deaf, like Merrill, have no hearing at all, while the hearing-impaired can hear some sounds, often with the help of a cochlear implant.

Merrill said she was inspired by Heather Whitestone McCallum, a hearing-impaired woman who was crowned Miss America in 1994.

"She was a role model for me," she said.

She said she plans to enter more pageants in the future, including the Miss Hawaii pageant when she is old enough.

Carmen said his daughter has already begun her community involvement as part of her year of service, visiting Pomaikai Elementary School last week to share her experience with the younger children.

"They were just starry-eyed," he said.