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Helping Deaf Students Succeed: An Interview with Chelsey Cahilly | Homeschool Helpers

October 3–7, 2016   |   Vol. 128, Week 8

For many Deaf students, not even their families know sign language. This can leave them feeling isolated and lonely. But homeschool graduate Chelsey Cahilly is working hard to make a difference in these students’ lives. Find out how on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat.

“When I walked in those doors, and I just saw everyone’s hands flying all around and people were talking but not using sound, that was the moment that I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”—Chelsey Cahilly

(This interview is part of our Homeschool Helpers series, which highlights homeschool grads and parents across the nation serving their communities as public servants. To read more stories, click here.)

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For many Deaf students, not even their families know sign language. This can leave them feeling isolated and lonely. But homeschool graduate Chelsey Cahilly is working hard to make a difference in these students’ lives. Find out how on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat.

Mike Smith: My guest today is Chelsey Cahilly. She’s a homeschool graduate who works as a high school sign language interpreter. Chelsey, it’s great to have you on the program today.

Chelsey Cahilly: It’s so great to be here, thanks for having me.

“I was hooked” [0:30]

Mike:  Chelsey, tell us about the day you decided to become an ASL interpreter and what does that mean?

Chelsey: ASL stands for American sign language. My neighbor worked at this school for the Deaf, and one day when I was about 16 she invited me to come to work with her just to see what she did. And I had kind of dabbled in learning sign language before, but I hadn’t been really serious. And at the time, I hadn’t known what I wanted to do with the rest of my life—but when I walked in those doors, and I just saw everybody’s hands flying all around and people were talking but not using sound, that was the moment that I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I was hooked.

Mike: So what are you actually doing today, then?

Chelsey: I am interpreting in a high school.

Mike: Okay, and so do you go there like a teacher every day, or what?

Chelsey: Yep, I’m full time. I work from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon.

Mike: Now is this a regular school or is this a Deaf school?

Chelsey: No, this is a mainstream, normal high school and we have about 25 Deaf kids that are within the school.

Mike: Okay, great. Are you seeing some good progress?

Chelsey: Yeah! I love what I do and I think that the kids really benefit from the program.

Cross-country learning [1:43]

Mike: Chelsey, you were homeschooled all the way through high school. What was that like?

Chelsey: Really, it was fantastic, because I really appreciate the flexibility and the independence that homeschooling afforded me. Looking back, it’s really amazing that I was able to work at my own pace and just be involved in extracurricular activities like drama troupes and choirs. And we were able to tour the country and stuff—you know, not your normal school schedule. And I guess we just loved having the ability to have one-on-one support from my teachers, be that my mom or people who were teaching co-ops I was in.

Mike: So, did homeschooling give you an opportunity to develop these skills that you’re using now, in terms of interpreting?

Chelsey: Yes, actually. I was able to dictate my own schedule, and so I was able to actually start college in high school. And I guess that gave me a leg up when I began my degree program. And also to be an interpreter, you have to be able to interact with people of all ages and backgrounds. And I think because I was out and experiencing, probably a little more than my public school counterparts who were spending time in a classroom with people who were the same age from the same town, same demographic—I think that really helped me prepare for my job today as an interpreter, because I really have to be creative and think on my feet and be self-driven and I think I have all those qualities today because I was homeschooled.

Mike: Sounds like you might have a little homeschooler there in your home, is that right?

Chelsey: I have two little homeschoolers in my home right now.

Impacting students’ lives [3:13]

Mike: Chelsey, what are the biggest challenges you face as a high school sign language interpreter?

Chelsey: I think that the hardest thing for me is when teachers seem to not put as much effort into educating their students as I hope they would. Now don’t get me wrong, the public school system is full of excellent teachers who are really passionate about what they do, but there are still those who I guess try to get by on the bare minimum. And that really frustrates me, because it’s the kids who suffer.

And I also think that inflexibility of the system and the bureaucracy that I see hampers some kids. Of course, there is a struggle that every interpreter faces, which is when I have to interpret information that I don’t believe or that I think is incorrect, but that’s just part of the job.

Mike: Well, tell us, there must be some rewarding parts of your job as well, right?

Chelsey: Oh, absolutely. I love the fact that every day I can go into work and know that I’m making a difference in the lives of students. And I know that sounds corny, but it’s true because a lot of these kids, they come from homes where their families [and] their parents don’t know sign language. And I know that’s shocking, but it’s a true demographic across Deaf kids and they can feel really isolated. So to be able to provide them communication access is a real privilege and I don’t take that lightly.

Mike: How do they treat you as a homeschool graduate? Do they know you didn’t go the regular way with schooling?

Chelsey: Well, it’s funny, because one of the other teachers that I work with was actually homeschooled, which is something that I never see. She’s about my age.

I don’t know. I get ribbed sometimes, like “Oh, you’re just saying that because you’re a homeschooler.” But I mean, people are usually pretty impressed, I guess.

I remember back when we were a kid and we were in the elevator. You know, people would see us and [say], “Why aren’t you in school?” “Oh, we’re homeschooled.” And then people would be like “Is that legal?” You know, I think it’s not like that anymore. People are a little more acclimated to us.

Just being a friend [4:58]

Mike: Chelsey, how have you been able to make a difference in the lives of these students you work with?

Chelsey: Well, something that I really try to do for these kids is to just be human to them. You know, the freshmen, they’re nervous, they’ve never been in such a big school, they forget their locker combination, you know. Meanwhile, the seniors are overwhelmed with the thought they are on the brink of adulthood and they don’t know how to pay for car insurance, they don’t even know what Social Security is. So I guess when it’s appropriate I try to answer the questions they have about real life. And I know that not everyone’s willing to do that which is fine and I respect other interpreters’ philosophies—that’s okay. But you have to realize that they do have this language barrier at home with their parents who don’t know ASL, so they really don’t have anyone else to ask these questions, who can describe things for them in their native language. So I really think that they appreciate it, and when they come up to me and they show me their college acceptance letters, or after they graduate I see them on Facebook and they are going on to be successful—that’s where it’s really rewarding for me and I’m proud to be able to say that I was their interpreter in high school.

Mike: It kind of sounds like you’re doing a lot of parenting there, though.

Chelsey: Well, I wouldn’t like to say that, but I am part of a support system, you know, and we all work together as a team to help these kids be as successful as they can be.

Developing empathy [6:17]

Mike: Chelsey, why is it important for homeschoolers to be involved in public service, in your opinion?

Chelsey: Well, I think that everyone has the ability to affect their world for good and one of the best ways to do that is to get involved in public service. You’ll meet people you wouldn’t have otherwise. You’ll get great experience and exposure, and at the same time you will be able to develop almost an empathy that you didn’t have before for people. Also, it’s always wonderful for people to see homeschoolers active in the public sector because we can all get tired of breaking any preconceived stigma that people might still associate with homeschooling in general. We might be able to do school in our pajamas, but we’re still normal people.

Mike: Well I like that, but do you have any advice for homeschoolers who want to get involved or parents who want to give their children opportunities outside the home?

Chelsey: Absolutely, and I would say it’s one word: volunteer. I think it’s a great way to get your foot in the door if you’re hoping for a future career in public service. I mean that’s how I got my first job in a school—it was after I volunteered there a number of years and then a position opened up and I was a natural choice. So I would just say contact whatever local entity you want to become involved in, because volunteers are always welcome.

Mike: Well, Chelsey, that’s great advice, especially for homeschoolers to be able to get involved outside the home—I completely agree with you. It’s been such a privilege having you on the show this week, and thank you for joining us and sharing your story. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Chelsey CahillyPhoto of Chelsey

Chelsey Cahilly, a homeschool alum, is an American Sign Language Interpreter. She holds an AAS degree in ASL/English Interpretation and a BA in Humanities, and she is certified to work as an Educational Interpreter. She currently holds a full-time position in a public high school, in addition to freelancing. She plans to pursue her National Interpreter Certification within the upcoming months.

Chelsey lives with her husband, also a homeschool alum, and two children (who are ages 3 and 4 and will also begin their homeschool journeys shortly) in northern New Jersey.

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