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Shamahl Nolan, left, who heads up the Mount Diablo school district's infant program for babies 3-18 months who are deaf or hearing impaired, plays a music instrument and walks around a table as parents and their infants follow playing small instruments inside her class at the Robert Shearer Preschool in Pleasant Hill, Calif., Thursday, March 21, 2013. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

PLEASANT HILL -- To parents who find out their precious new babies don't hear normally, Shamahl Nolan provides comfort and guidance.

"Shamahl's been wonderful," said Mike Bokamper, whose 11-month-old son Nicolas has hearing loss in both ears, but can hear a little. "We were devastated when they said he didn't pass his hearing test. I was sort of in denial. But he responds to music and he dances."

Soon after babies fail their newborn hearing tests, Nolan visits them and their parents in their homes and invites them to the Mt. Diablo school district's Early Start program for deaf and hearing-impaired infants, which is on the Gregory Gardens Elementary campus. There, she has converted a classroom into a homey, family-friendly room complete with a crib, rocking chairs and play areas with balls and toys such as drums and rattles that make noises the children may be able to hear.

Shamahl Nolan who heads up the Mount Diablo school district’s infant program for babies 3-18 months who are deaf or hearing impaired, holds infant
Shamahl Nolan who heads up the Mount Diablo school district's infant program for babies 3-18 months who are deaf or hearing impaired, holds infant King Samoa, 9 months, from Concord, while sitting on a ball to help infant with balance inside her class at the Robert Shearer Preschool in Pleasant Hill, Calif., Thursday, March 21, 2013. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

"I try to move from activity to activity because their attention span is only about five minutes," she said with a smile, in between playing and signing with babies on the carpet, then propping them on her lap one-at-a-time as she gently rocked back and forth on a giant balance ball. "And we invite siblings, so they can learn signing too."

After working in the program for the past decade, Nolan, 63, has decided to retire in June. Those who work with her say she is leaving a legacy they are committed to continuing.

"When I first came, she was really like a mentor to me," said Tina Lopez, who has worked with Nolan for nearly three years. "I love that she works with (babies) because she's the first person parents see when they find out their child has a hearing loss. She has a way of comforting them."

Although the program at the Robert Shearer Preschool had been around for decades, it has grown under Nolan's watch. Hospitals started routinely testing infants' hearing in 2008, based on a new law. The early testing has allowed children to get intervention as they are growing and developing, while the parents form bonds by playing together with their babies and participating in a support group. They also learn sign language to better communicate with their hearing-impaired child.

The result is a network of parents who share their fears, anxieties and accomplishments as they adjust to raising a child with special needs. Nolan shows them how to engage their babies with sounds, hand signs, physical movements and facial expressions, while the babies learn to socialize.

During a recent morning class, Nolan held up colorful blocks and tiny stuffed chirping birds, which babies reached for wide-eyed.

"Their fine motor skills are important for signing," Nolan said. "We're looking at nutrition and all aspects of their lives."

She later marched around the classroom leading the parents and their babies in an impromptu parade, singing and rubbing together two noisemakers. Nolan said she focuses on the whole child, helping parents to understand milestones as their children reach them.

Nolan said an early diagnosis is best. Although parents often grieve when they first learn of their child's hearing loss, she helps them overcome their fears and begin to learn as a family to communicate through sign language or speech.

When babies first come to the program, she often helps the audiologist test their hearing in a special sound booth on the campus. And when the babies are old enough for hearing aids, Nolan helps them and their parents to understand that it will take a while to get used to the amplification.

Parents say Nolan gives them the knowledge and resources they need to raise their children with confidence, and be prepared for challenges as they grow up.

Shamahl Nolan, top, heads up the Mount Diablo school district’s infant program for babies 3-18 months who are deaf or hearing impaired, looks into a
Shamahl Nolan, top, heads up the Mount Diablo school district's infant program for babies 3-18 months who are deaf or hearing impaired, looks into a tunnel at two infants trying to crawl through, inside her class at the Robert Shearer Preschool in Pleasant Hill, Calif., Thursday, March 21, 2013. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

"We want to empower our child for later on, for bullying and all that," Bokamper said. "It's a jump-start on social interaction."

And when a child's first birthday rolls around, Nolan is like a proud grandma who throws a little party with gifts and takes pictures. She started a toy lending library to help families who can't afford to buy them.

"It's just really nice," said Carrie Davis, recalling her 1-year-old daughter Shiloh's first birthday celebration in the class. "It's like a little family."

Cheryl Kolano, principal of Gregory Gardens and the Robert Shearer Preschool, said Nolan is a gifted teacher whose contributions to families in the community reach far beyond her classroom. Last year, Kolano recognized Nolan with the school's PTA Founder's Day award, saying the she brings joy, optimism, community and a sense of wonder to each child's family, who in turn "fill their babies' lives with joy, optimism and love."

Theresa Harrington covers education. Reach her at 925-945-4764 or tharrington@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.

hometown hero
NAME: Shamahl Nolan
AGE: 63
HOMETOWN: Pleasant Hill
CLAIM TO FAME: Has worked for the past decade in the Mt. Diablo school district's "Early Start" program for hearing-impaired infants, where she has created a family-friendly classroom that includes parents support groups and developed a toy lending program to assist families, who she also visits in their homes.
QUOTE: "With the babies, I just follow their lead. They show me what they're interested in. I follow up with the language that will expand those things that they love."
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. Read about a new Hometown Hero every other week and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes. Do you know a Hometown Hero? Let us know about the work they do at HometownHeroes@bayareanewsgroup.com.
For more information about Nolan and the Early Start program, read the On Assignment blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.