CAOS's first student spreads success to next generation

collage of Christopher Caulfield as a child and adult with familyJennifer Caulfield remembers thinking everything was perfectly fine with her 12-month-old son, Christopher. Then the glass shattered.

Sitting by his mother’s side in the kitchen, playing with whatever he could get his hands on, Christopher dropped a glass container. It broke on the ceramic tile, and his 5-year-old sister, Rachel, screamed from her bedroom. Spooked, she wondered what that noise was.

But Christopher didn’t flinch.

A few days later, at his one-year checkup, Jennifer and her husband, Thomas, found out what they then suspected. Their son was deaf.

They didn’t know Christopher would make history. In March 1997, St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf at Carle – now Carle Auditory Oral School (CAOS) – opened just in time for Christopher to enroll as the very first student.

Recently, CAOS director Danielle Chalfant looked back and looked forward through joyful tears as she connected with Christopher by phone. Her first student was finishing his undergraduate work at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He wants to create an app to help children to practice their speech between therapy sessions.

His progress represents the school’s primary mission.

“It was so wild to be talking to him as an adult. After working so hard over the years to establish excellent spoken and written communication, he wanted to help others like him,” Chalfant said.

Like others like him, the early days can be challenging.

“At first the diagnosis was devastating, because your reality changes overnight,” said Christopher’s mother, a 29-year Carle employee. “Tom and I thought he was born with normal hearing. …

“We would talk, giggle, and do everything you would do with a child you believed could hear.”

Then they connected with Carle’s Expanding Children’s Hearing Opportunities (ECHO) program to explore their options.

young female student playing and learning at Carle Oral Auditory SchoolAround the same time, Michael Novak, MD, began hearing from families about the need for a local program focused on listening and spoken language development. He engaged with the St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis to bring an auditory oral school to Urbana. 

Today, Chalfant and her team still support each student based on unique needs and interests.

“Our program’s mission is to meet each child and family where they are, and to take them as far as they can go as quickly as they can get there,” she said. “That means, as a staff, we need to be responsive to child, family and program needs at all times.”

That includes providing repeated successful practice with spoken language, building listening and auditory memory, acquiring academic skills and perfecting speech productions.  

 “What I remember most about Danielle isn’t only her loving, caring nature, but also her incredible competency as a teacher of the deaf,” Jennifer Caulfield said. “She made learning fun, and she is one in a long line of individuals who work wonders at the school.”

Since Chalfant and the Caulfields entered the first classroom 20 years ago, a lot has changed—with space, technology and support.

Support for the school comes through Carle Center for Philanthropy. For the last decade, proceeds from the annual Carle Golf Open have helped ensure the school continues to meet the needs of children with hearing loss and their families, regardless of the family’s income.

“Our growth allowed us to stay true to who we are. We still have never turned away a child,” Chalfant said. “I can’t imagine any comparable institution that is as supported as we are here.”

The very first child CAOS embraced is now more than 800 miles away, but the connection is still as strong as ever.

Christopher started his first year of graduate school at Cornell Tech in August. The dual master’s program he chose is for Information Systems and Connected Media. And web accessibility – preventing barriers within web properties – is a big focus.

He doesn’t believe this would be possible without the foundation created at CAOS and at home.

“When I came to Cornell, I chose an option that made me uncomfortable because it could be difficult,” Christopher said. “I wasn’t afraid to choose a difficult option because so many doors have already opened for me over the years.

“That’s because the people at CAOS didn’t do the work for me; they did it with me.”