PORTLAND — It was an extraordinary moment in an already extraordinary life.

Yuri Shepard-Kegl stood before the audience in Merrill Auditorium earlier this month and, with the rest of the graduates in Portland High School’s class of 2010, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in American Sign Language.

“I was proud that I was able to put my language out there, too,” Shepard-Kegl, who is deaf, said through an interpreter. “I didn’t want to just stand there while the others sang.”

Four years ago, Shepard-Kegl was living in poverty in Nicaragua and struggling to get an education in a country where being deaf can be a sentence to suffer in isolation as well.

After several years of trying, Jim and Judy Shepard-Kegl adopted Yuri in 2006 and brought her to their home in North Yarmouth. They already had two other children, Luisa and Marlon, who also were adopted in Nicaragua.

Judy Shepard-Kegl is a linguistics professor at the University of Southern Maine. She is best known for her groundbreaking research in Nicaragua in the 1980s, when she documented a group of deaf children who were creating a new sign language where none existed.

In 1995, she and her husband, Jim, a lawyer and pilot, established a school for about 25 deaf children in Bluefields, Nicaragua. Yuri, which is pronounced “Judy” in Spanish, was one of their first students. Yuri’s parents were separated and she lived with her grandmother, but during the week she stayed with a host family near the one-room school.

When Yuri’s grandmother was dying in 2001, she asked the Shepard-Kegls to adopt Yuri, but her father refused to grant permission. He finally relented in 2005, when Yuri became pregnant and her host family situation became untenable.

“He finally agreed that coming to the U.S. was the best thing for Yuri,” said Jim Shepard-Kegl, who then spent several months negotiating the adoption with Nicaraguan authorities and tracking down Yuri’s mother to gain her permission as well.

Yuri Shepard-Kegl arrived in the United States in March 2006. Then 15, she gave birth to her son, Myron, soon after. She enrolled as a freshman in the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf program at Portland High School that fall.

At the time, she communicated only in Nicaraguan Sign Language. At Portland High, she worked with teams of sign language translators to learn American Sign Language. The transformation she experienced as a result encompassed more than communication.

“She was a lost little girl when she arrived,” said Deborah Howard, one of her teachers. “Today, I see confidence and caring in her. I see a bright, shiny, hardworking young woman in front of me.”

While at Portland High, Yuri Shepard-Kegl resumed her interest in art as a way to express herself. Her paintings and other works reflect the colorful and whimsical pieces she once created in her native country.

Now 20, she plans to continue studying commercial art for one more year at Portland Arts and Technology High School, then work on her English reading and writing skills so she can go to art school. She’d especially like to work in film.

“I can’t stop learning,” she said. “I’m very thankful for all the people who have taught me. They have given me the tools I need to do what I want to do.”

In July, Yuri Shepard-Kegl plans to return to Nicaragua and spend several weeks teaching deaf students on banana plantations on the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua.

Jim Shepard-Kegl couldn’t be more proud that his daughter is giving back to the educational programs that once helped her.

“I think it shows a real appreciation and awareness of how lucky she is,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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