Long before winning an Academy Award for best film actress in 1987, Marlee Matlin skipped onto a stage in a makeshift theater in Glenview, Ill. (pop. 41,847), portraying Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, her first play.
Wearing a blue and white checked dress and carrying a small picnic basket, the deaf 7-year-old improvised as a napkin covering her basket accidentally floated down to the stage floor while the play's director, Patricia Scherer, watched anxiously offstage.
"Marlee did extra skips around the circle, bent down, picked up the napkin and went on as if it was part of the play," recalls Scherer, lauding her most famous student as a naturally gifted actress, even as a child.
The play 37 years ago was the first of many proud moments and theatrical productions for Scherer, founder of the International Center on Deafness & the Arts in Northbrook, Ill. (pop. 33,435).
Since establishing the center in 1974, Scherer and her work have touched the lives of more than 20,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing children, teenagers and young people exploring the arts through theater, dance, drawing and writingand produced a legion of working artists, authors, dancers and actors.
"My program allowed these children to make positive impacts in their lives and become successful as adults," Scherer says of the endeavor funded through grants and private donations. "Over 90 percent of the people who participated in the creative programs are employed, as compared to 40 percent in the deaf community."
The center has filled a significant void, according to Matlin, who was a toddler when she lost her hearing as a result of a viral illness.
"Were it not for the center, there would be a lot of deaf children living unfulfilled lives whose potential would be unrealized," writes Matlin, 44, who won her Oscar at age 21 for portraying a deaf student in Children of a Lesser God. "The center listens to the dreams of the deaf children and helps them come true."
Listening is the skill that enabled Scherer to identify the enormous need for a place where deaf children could express themselves artistically.
While exploring career possibilities in music or education, she visited a school for the deaf in Chicago in 1960, leading to her degree in deaf education from Northwestern University and subsequent graduate degrees with an emphasis in language pathology and learning disabilities. Working later for Northwestern, she learned sign language from deaf adults who shared their disability stories of hurt and rejection. The experiences led her to open a creative arts program for deaf children such as Matlin, a native of Morton Grove, Ill.
Having acted as a child in professional plays in Chicago, Scherer saw theater as a healthy outlet for deaf children to develop confidence while communicating with their audience through American Sign Language and facial expressions, in addition to developing memory skills.
As word spread about its CenterLight Children's Theatre, the center grew to include a dance company, a touring theater and an arts festival for deaf children who like to write and draw. Since 1994, the center, in partnership with Illinois State University and Oakton Community College, has trained teachers of the deaf and hard-of-hearing in the Chicago area.
Amy Ausdenmoore, 16, of Gurnee, Ill., calls the center her second home. "When I'm there, I feel like I live in a world where everyone speaks my language," the deaf actress and dancer says.
Alumni include Kaitlyn Mielke, 25, who credits her stage experience for transforming her from "a shy child who simply nodded yes or no to everything, to a full-emerged drama queen."
"I became more confident in myself, in school, in life, at workeverywhere," says Mielke, a student at the University of Minnesota and Miss Deaf Minnesota in 2008.
Scherer will continue to champion arts for deaf children with the help of daughter Kathleen Herman, 53, the center's executive director, and two granddaughters, Carolyn Kalina, 30, and Christine Strejc, 32, as they listen to the dreams of their next generation of students.