Lauren Teruel stopped for a moment and scanned the crowd of children at her feet.
"Did all of you see the pig flying in the air in the straw house?" she asked in sign language.
As the newly crowned Miss Deaf America, the 22-year-old recent graduate of Cal State Northridge had 100 or so children and adults at her fingertips.
Teruel chose a sign language storytelling hour last week at the Borders books and music store in Northridge as her first public event since winning the title in July.
Teruel, whose deafness was diagnosed when she was 2, read from "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs," a new take on the classic fairy tale.
In this rendition, the wolf claims it was a cold--not his insatiable appetite--that created all the havoc and ruined the pigs' homes made of straw and sticks.
The kids smile at the story's unexpected twist and at seeing her act out the big bad wolf's outrageous sneezes.
"She's a natural," said Polly Schreiber, of CSUN's National Center on Deafness, who read the books aloud alongside Teruel.
Reading to children is Teruel's passion--and a message she will tout over the next two years as she crisscrosses the country attending luncheons and graduation ceremonies as a spokeswoman for the National Association for the Deaf.
Teruel's father, Hugo, a counselor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, signed stories to his young daughter before tucking her into bed each night.
"Family literacy has multiple benefits," she said in an online interview with the Los Angeles Times. "There is a strengthening of the family bond . . . and that bond gives children more confidence, more faith and more support."
As a child in Chicago, Teruel was shy and withdrawn. She knew she was different from her peers--she can't hear, and she is of black and Mexican American descent.
Her parents decided to send her to a special high school for the deaf in Washington, D.C. That, she said, helped build her confidence.
She chose CSUN for college because of its National Center on Deafness. Through that program, the university serves the largest population of deaf students in the western United States with in-class interpreters and other specialized services. Teruel graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing.
While at CSUN she took up hip-hop dancing for a local deaf performing group. She has a role in a soon-to-be-released independent film and even started skydiving a few weeks ago. No handicap, she says, will get in her way.
She hopes she can convey that message to other children who may feel out of step as she did growing up.
"I hope [kids] will see me and think, 'Hey, she's different and I'm different too,' " she said. "I hope that children, the disadvantaged, as well as the advantaged ones, will see that being different is fabulous!"
Entertainment events for the estimated 750,000 deaf or hearing impaired living in Los Angeles County are hard to come by--especially for children. The Borders store in Northridge has been hosting its "Sign Language Story Time" to growing audiences since April.
Michelle Fefer, 29, often takes her 5-year-old son, Shay, who lost his hearing when he was 2 after a nearly fatal bout with meningitis.
"He asks if he can come every day" to have a story signed, said Fefer, of Granada Hills.
On this particular night, Teruel, who lives in Northridge, signed "Thomas and the Naughty Diesel," in Shay's honor.
The boy sat in his mother's lap and watched Teruel's every move, shaking his hands in appreciation--sign language for applause--when she finished.
The one-hour story time is just as meaningful for adults.
Charles McGilchrist, 49, who has been deaf since childhood, drove 25 miles from La Canada Flintridge with his wife, Beatriz, just to meet Teruel and to have their picture taken with her.
After Teruel said her goodbyes to the children and signed some autographs, the McGilchrists, who have been married 10 years, talked with her about the lack of awareness of the needs of the nation's estimated 28 million deaf and hearing impaired.
The couple agreed that Teruel can only help put a face on what many call "the silent disability."
"To teach people is a gift," Charles McGilchrist said. "And she has it," Beatriz added.
Teruel is the second consecutive CSUN graduate to serve as Miss Deaf America. She is the first of either African American or Mexican American descent since the pageant began in 1972.
"Sign Language Story Time,"is held at 7 p.m. the second and fourth Thursday of each month at Borders, 9301 Tampa Ave., Northridge. Teruel will sign more stories at the location Oct. 26.
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