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When Jessica Burke, Ms. Deaf Illinois, visited their class November 24, students in Patti Powell's sign language course saw an example of the willpower and resolve that often characterizes people with special needs. 

Burke, a native of South America, was chosen from among seven contestants as Ms. Deaf Illinois in July, at a pageant sponsored by the Illinois Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. She will hold the title for two years and compete for the Ms. Deaf America crown next year.

"I wanted to do something for the deaf community and bring more awareness about deaf people," she said through her interpreter and adoptive mother, Joan Burke. "One of my high school teachers encouraged me to enter the pageant, and I thought it would be a fun opportunity and allow me to meet new people."

Born in Colombia, she spent the first 11 months of her life in an orphanage where her hearing loss went undetected. Her caregivers concluded that she was not as responsive as the other children. It was not until she was adopted 19 years ago by the Burke family that her disability became evident.

Burke lives in LaGrange Park, Illinois, and is a freshman at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, where she is studying digital imaging and publishing technology. During the sign language class, she presented a children's story and fielded questions from the students, who used sign language to converse with her. She described some of her hobbies, which include hand-painted and computer-generated artwork, and a few memories of last summer's pageant.

"Her story is remarkable," Powell said. "She's overcome a lot of adversity in her life, and her accomplishments are a testament to her determination and perseverance. Her visit reinforced to my students that children with special needs have the capabilities to achieve great things."

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