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Lakesider helps unveil American Girl Doll with hearing loss

Nikki Kramer happy to have a doll ‘just like her’

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From the way she dashed around her toy-laden living room, springing from the couch to the floor and back, you would assume that Nikki Kramer, of Merrick, was just like any other energetic 9-year-old. And she is — except for her sensorineural hearing loss. But Nikki’s condition pales in comparison to her spunky attitude, which was evident during a recent “Good Morning America” segment.

On Dec. 31, Nikki, a fourth-grader at Norman J. Levy Lakeside School, was invited to ABC’s Times Square studio to help American Girl unveil its 2020 Girl of the Year. The doll’s name is Joss Kendrick, a competitive cheerleader and surfer from Southern California. Joss was also born deaf in one ear and, like Nikki, wears a hearing aid.

Before Christmas, the Kramers were contacted by the Hearing Loss Association of America — which partnered with American Girl for the doll’s reveal — to see if Nikki would be interested in appearing in the segment. In September, they took part in New York City’s Walk4Hearing, which raises money for the association.

Together with two other Merrick families, who also have children with hearing loss, the Kramers raised more than $8,000 — the highest of any individual team. Dave Kramer, Nikki’s father, said Nikki raised $6,100 of that total. The HLAA, he added, “reached out to girls from the walk, and said ‘we have a surprise for 2020.’”

“GMA” invited more than 30 girls — three with hearing loss — to appear on the show for Joss’s debut. They were dressed in beach-themed outfits to echo the doll’s love of surfing. Then, through a partition of ebbing paper waves, Joss was revealed. The correspondent asked the girls with hearing loss, “What do you like most about Joss?” Nikki answered, “I like that she’s athletic and she has hearing aides like me.”

Each girl was gifted a Joss doll to take home. Before she goes to sleep, Nikki takes out her hearing aides and puts them in a case on her nightstand. Her mother, Amy Kramer, said Nikki has been doing the same thing for Joss every night since she got her.

Before Joss, Amy had to buy Nikki a hearing aide accessory for her other American Girl doll — Joss, however, “is the first [doll] they created that actually has the disability itself,” she said. 

Nikki was born with sensorineural hearing loss (see box) and wears hearing aids in both ears. The condition was detected when she was 22 months old, and she attended specialized preschool at the Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf. When it came time for kindergarten, the Kramers worked with Sal Dossena, the director of student services in the Merrick School District, and Dr. Jill Henriksen, a district psychologist, to support Nikki’s transition to Lakeside.

“[We] support students to make sure they have any and all services necessary for success within a classroom,” Dossena said. For Nikki to have “the opportunity to speak on national television, and the confidence to respond to questions that are personal to her, is truly remarkable.”

Nikki said she is happy to have a doll just like her, since “a lot of girls want their American Girl doll [to be] like them,” she said. The Kramers also believe Joss’s presence is important for other parents who have children with hearing loss.

“I wish we had something like this when Nikki was first diagnosed,” Dave said. “Bringing it into the mainstream gives [parents] that hope, that even with hearing loss, you can achieve anything you want to achieve.” The same can be said of Nikki, who also enjoys sports, though she favors softball and basketball over cheer and surfing.

Dossena agreed that Joss’s presence is extremely valuable on a larger scale. “It allows a child to have access to a doll that is just like them . . . and brings to light that we all have differences,” he said. “Whether its hearing loss, eye color, skin color, you want students to be able to directly relate [so] they don’t feel any different than anybody else.”

Nikki said she feels the same as her friends who don’t have hearing aids. “They use the word ‘fierce’ to describe Joss, and I think Nikki is fierce as well,” Amy said. “She doesn’t let anything stop her.”