Noise cascaded from the bleachers — cheers, hoots, encouragement, admonishments — trumpeted from the mouths of parents and students and aimed at the wrestlers grappling below in the Yuba City High School gym.

Across four mats, the eyes of wrestlers flickered from opponents to coaches.

"Grab an ankle!"

"Roll over!"

"Half-nelson, half-nelson!"

All of them strained to pick out barked instructions from the tumult.

All but one. Eighth-grader Kirino Burr-DelaFunete took hurried glances at Dori Haney, instead of coach Edward Salacup kneeling on the sidelines.

Salacup coached, the same as others, but Haney translated his yells into sign language.

The clamor of the gymnasium didn't faze Kirino. He is deaf.

And in this sport in which hollering seems essential, he's never finished lower than third in the local championships in five years. His bedroom is festooned with 16 wrestling medals.

Rewind to the team's practice at Central Gaither Elementary School weeks before the match. The mood was light. Kirino and two other hearing impaired wrestlers, Gael Barajas and Felipe Diaz, seventh graders, mingled with their hearing enabled classmates.

Interactions were seamless. They joked through gestures, with playful pushes and grins. Some of the teammates have stayed after school for sign language instruction from Haney. She works for the Sutter County Superintendent of Schools office, which manages the county's special needs education programs.

The team counted out calisthenics both with fingers and voices. Otherwise, it would be difficult for outsiders to recognize some teammates are different from others.

The small school works hard to cultivate that inclusive atmosphere in which it doesn't matter to the students that it's a campus where 20 out of 220 students are deaf or hard of hearing.

Principal Debbie Everett likes to play a little game with parents visiting to decide if their children should attend. Her office looks out on the playground, and she'll ask the visitors to try to spot the deaf children amongst the students clambering over the equipment.

"They can't find them," Everett said. "That's how it is here — they're all part of the mix."

The small Yuba City school, teaching grades kindergarten through eight, is part of the Yuba City Unified School District and has been the site of the county's deaf and hard-of-hearing program for years.

Many deaf and hard-of-hearing children, before coming to Central Gaither, experience a different reality.

"Kids can come to us apprehensive, scared or crying," Everett said. "They have no language, or they've created their own, and they have to learn sign language. Some of our kids come to us from actual deaf schools because they've had negative experiences in regular public schools."

Students come to Central Gaither from all over the county, from public schools in the district and from charter schools.

Kirino's nurturing started in Central Gaither's infant program when he was just 15 months old. For most of the time since then, Cindy Fuess has been his teacher.

Fuess said deafness is often misunderstood and one of the barriers to understanding is lack of inclusion.

She said 90 percent of deaf kids live in families with hearing that don't know sign language. Consequently, their home life can be lonely, and their social skills suffer.

There are misconceptions. Some people might think deaf students are dumb, Fuess said.

"People don't understand it affects vocabulary, which affects reading, which makes it difficult to learn," Fuess said.

Those misconceptions can lead to teasing, focusing on the children's hearing aids or peculiar way of speaking.

"We've never had a child disciplined for teasing a deaf student," Everett said. "We just don't see that in our little world."

Classmates are taught to accept hearing impaired kids the same as hearing enabled kids.

"The whole school is aware of our kids. They don't see them as different," Fuess said.

Kirino has not been picked on or teased, partly because he has known nothing but Central Gaither most of his life, said Robin Burr, his mother.

Kirino is a natural, multi-sport athlete — playing basketball and participating in track. But wrestling is his passion. He will record broadcasts of college wrestling matches and watch them for hours, rewinding the action to reexamine a move or a sequence, Burr said.

As the oldest member of the team, he has firmly embraced a leadership role with the hearing and hearing-impaired alike, Salacup said.

Kirino can often be seen helping Gael and Felipe, the other hearing impaired wrestlers, who are not quite at Kirino's skill level.

Leading, joking, succeeding — all are hallmarks of confidence, the main trait educators and coaches at Central Gaither work to instill. The wrestling team is the ideal medium for fostering that characteristic.

"Wrestling helps them realize they're capable of anything, and it helps them focus more on other areas as well," Fuess said. "It builds confidence and self-worth."

Talk to Kirino about what it will be like, this next school year, to leave Central Gaither and transition into Yuba City High School, and he'll admit he's nervous. But that doesn't have anything to do with the fact that he's deaf.

He worries about the extra workload, but said he's excited to see old friends. Seven kids who went through Central Gaither's program ahead of him are waiting at the high school, a ready-made social base.


Gael won the first match of his wrestling career this year, after three years on the team.

"He was up in the sky when he finally won," said Cathy Bejarano, his mother. "You can see his level of confidence."

Gael tried other sports. He played soccer when he was younger, but that team didn't have an interpreter like Haney.

"They wanted to play him in a special league. He wasn't thrilled with that," Bejarano said. "This is totally different."

In many ways, wrestling is the ideal sport for the deaf children of Central Gaither. It's a sport that prides itself on equality. There is no notion of "making the team." There is no distinction between starters and the bench. Weight classes level the competitive field.

"One of the big reasons that upper grade class is so successful is because of wrestling," Everett said. "Being a part of the wrestling program has helped them feel like they fit in. It's helped them work side by side with general education students in the classroom and interact with them socially on the playground."

Before he started coaching at Central Gaither, Salacup already had a connection to the school. His nephew went through Central Gaither's deaf and hard-of-hearing program.

"He took a genuine interest in engaging them with wrestling," Everett said. "Then the whole team came together and just cheered those boys on. They couldn't help but be successful because everyone is rooting for them."

By participating in the wrestling team, Kirino discovered what he wants to do for the rest of this life. He wants to coach deaf and hard-of-hearing wrestlers, a goal he hopes to pursue in college on a wrestling scholarship.

Raising Kirino and seeing him through the wrestling program has also changed his family's outlook.

"It's opened my mind and heart to people with handicaps and disabilities," Burr said. "And my kids are the same. They never pick on people that are disabled or handicapped. They try to help them."

At a glance

Central Gauthier is an elementary school in the Yuba City Unified School District teaching children from kindergarten to eighth grade.

The school hosts the Sutter County Superintendent of Schools office's deaf and hard of hearing program.

Out of a campus of 220 students, 20 are deaf or hard of hearing.

Q & A

Kirino Burr-DelaFunete, an eighth-grade deaf student at Central Gaither, answered questions about his experience on the school's wrestling team and next year's switch to Yuba City High School.

Q.: What was your favorite part about wrestling at Central Gaither?

A.: My coach was cool, but (I also liked) all my teammates and helping them learn new moves.

Q.: Why is wrestling your favorite sport?

A.: It's fun, and I love all the excitement at the tournaments.

Q.: Did the skills you learned from wrestling help you in the classroom?

A.: Yes, it taught me teamwork on and off the mat.

Q.: Are you nervous about the transition to high school?

A.: Yes, (there will be) lots of new people, harder work, and I'm going to miss all the people I've spent a lot of my life with.

CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey.

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