Ciara McDaniel ’20 never expected that her choice of volunteer activities would change the direction of her life, but after volunteering with the Sunshine Cottage, a school specifically for deaf education, she decided that her work with those kids couldn’t be finished just yet.
McDaniel began volunteering with the Sunshine Cottage during her time at Trinity in the education department. One of her courses, “Learners with Exceptionalities,” required a service component where students volunteered with special needs students in the San Antonio community. McDaniel says she picked Sunshine for convenience at first—it was close and she didn't have a car. But, it turns out, it was love at first lesson.
Sunshine Cottage serves more than 350 children, from infants with recently identified hearing loss all the way through students in 5th grade. The school works with audiologists and speech therapists, providing more than just education.
“I just fell in love immediately,” McDaniel says. “I thought it was such a cute and wholesome place. The kids are treated so well there; they have every possible service they need to be able to succeed in school. It just made me really happy, so I just kept volunteering.”
For the rest of her time at Trinity, McDaniel worked as a classroom assistant on Fridays, helping run the classroom and working with students on assignments. She heard about the master’s program in deaf education at UT Health Science Center of San Antonio and decided to apply. She was accepted and began the program after graduating from Trinity with a bachelor’s degree in music education in May 2020.
McDaniel was offered a position as an associate preschool teacher at Sunshine Cottage while she goes to school. The main classroom teacher works with these associate teachers to put two teachers in each classroom, which keeps the student-teacher ratio small so as to give children as much individualized attention as possible. Until going back to in-person learning, McDaniel worked with the students over Zoom, using Powerpoints to teach lessons in 30 minute increments.
Sunshine Cottage just reopened for in-person classes a few weeks ago. Despite the challenges, McDaniel is glad classes are back in person. “The distance from them is really strange,” McDaniel says. “The teachers have to wear masks, and preferably shields, too. For deaf children, that's especially hard because they do rely a lot on lip reading if they are not able to hear well. Even to people with a normal level of hearing, the mask creates a mild hearing loss, so it's really hard.”
Most of the teachers have invested in masks with a clear panel that allows the children to see their mouths, which fog up a bit but seem to be working pretty well. Every day, the students pick songs to sing in the morning, and McDaniel plays the ukulele for them as they sing songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” and “You Are My Sunshine.”
Currently, McDaniel is in her second semester of the master’s program and will continue working with Sunshine Cottage until she graduates.
“It’s hard to balance classes and work,” she says. “Most days, I come home from work and immediately go to class on Zoom, but I’m having a great time. I love it. And I know it's going to be so rewarding when I have my own classroom of students to love.”