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Published July 12, 2012, 12:00 AM

Shell of silence cracked: Duluth teen, deaf since birth, excels in 4-H

Kaity Hagen has gone from a quiet South St. Louis County 4-H member to being chosen to represent the county as a state ambassador for the organization this year.

By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune

Kaity Hagen has gone from a quiet South St. Louis County 4-H member to being chosen to represent the county as a state ambassador for the organization this year.

The 16-year-old Duluthian joined 4-H when she was 8, and she stayed on the perimeter until her robotics team needed to choose a medical issue for a project topic two years ago. The group chose to study cochlear implants — a small electronic device that can help provide sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing. Hagen happens to have two implants.

“I was born deaf,” said Hagen, who received one implant at age 5 and one at age 13.

The cochlear implant consists of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Given the chance to teach her group about what she deals with every day gave her confidence, Hagen said, and helped improve her social skills.

“Everyone got to learn about what it is and what it’s used for,” she said, and the group’s project became a news conference skit where actors in roles — such as a man losing his hearing and the parents of a deaf child — asked questions of Hagen.

With the competition “being focused on her deafness and cochlear implants and getting to teach others about that, I saw her really open up,” said Val Coit, program coordinator of South St. Louis County 4-H.

Before the project, Hagen often worked by herself, Coit said. Going from that to “being an integral part of the team and taking on a leadership role … she’s really come out of her shell.”

Hagen went on to coach a robotics team last year after she aged out of the group, and this year she entered her first project in the South St. Louis County Fair, winning a blue ribbon. She also applied for and was chosen to be one of about 30 state ambassadors, which is a leadership program for 4-H. Hagen will spend time helping at the Minnesota State Fair next month and will be called upon to speak to Northeastern Minnesota groups about 4-H throughout the year.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” Coit said, noting Hagen will be part of a team that ensures activities for older youth involved in 4-H and has an influence on 4-H work at the state level.

Hagen is excited about the coming year. She’s been educated via an online school for several years and will attend Harbor City International School as a junior this fall. The 4-H organization has forced her to work harder at advocating for herself, she said.

“It’s hard for me to say, ‘Hey, can you talk louder?’ ” she said. “I still need to work on advocating outside of 4-H,” and school will be a test for her.

She got some practice speaking to the rest of the ambassadors at a retreat last week, explaining how to best communicate with her.

“I think her involvement and being very up-front with things has educated a lot of people within our program, especially with youth,” Coit said. “They don’t treat her any differently, but you can tell that sensitivity is there. She has an ability to communicate with people about her deafness with such grace.”