Wrestlers perform to benefit school - Program raises money to aid deaf students

April 28, 2011
by Jonathan Barnes freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com

Professional wrestler Ken Jugan is a large and powerful man, but he hasn't always been able to protect his two deaf sons from the ignorance of the hearing-blessed world.

At times it has been difficult for the family to get an interpreter for a doctor's appointment or medical procedure, and they've experienced a doctor's insensitive treatment after Mr. Jugan complained about the hospital not having an interpreter available.

Mr. Jugan, of Glassport, has found other ways to help the deaf, chiefly by volunteering for his boys' school, Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. He is organizing the 11th professional wrestling fundraiser for the school, an event he started in the 1990s.

Now his son Adam, 21, is a graduate of WPSD, and Blaise is an 18-year-old senior.

This year's Deaf WrestleFest, a major fundraiser for the school, will run from 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday in the school's gym. The event is headlined by pro wrestling icon Tony Atlas and will include 40 wrestlers performing in 12 matches, as well as a "meet and greet" with the wrestlers before the event.

Mr. Jugan wrestles under the name Lord Zoltan and will be part of the performance. Unlike some pro wrestling matches, which can include off-color material and sometimes foul language, Deaf WrestleFest is a tame event.

"We run a G-rated show," Mr. Jugan said.

Of particular interest to WPSD students will be pro wrestler Zach Gowen, a Detroit athlete who was the first professional wrestler with one leg. He lost a leg to cancer when he was 8, but even as a youngster, Mr. Gowen knew he would be a wrestler.

"When I'd tell people I wanted to be the first one-legged professional wrestler, they laughed at me. But I knew in my heart it was true," he said.

This weekend's show will be Mr. Gowen's first appearance at WPSD, although he said he has wanted to perform there for some time. And while he regularly speaks to children at schools and in hospitals about his life story, this weekend's event has special meaning to him.

"It feels great to be a part of it, because when I was a kid and was sick and lost my leg, I didn't have anyone to look up to," he said.

Funds generated from the event will go to support programs for the school, which educates hearing-impaired students from across the state. One of those benefiting will be Hayley Walker, a senior, who has been at WPSD since she was 12 years old. The family moved from Southern California so Hayley could attend the school, where she boards five days per week during the school year and goes home on weekends.

"[WPSD] had everything -- access to sign and verbal communication, audiology support services, and the ability to talk to any school staff," Mara Walker, Hayley's mother, said. "It also had the ability [for Hayley] to talk to any person on school grounds without needing an interpreter."

The school also has provided Hayley many opportunities to compete in athletic events against other deaf schools along the East Coast. She has been able to travel across the nation with her classmates, too.

Last summer, she and a group of her fellow junior class members took a trip to Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California, visiting national parks, San Francisco, the Grand Canyon and other destinations.

Mr. Atlas, of Auburn, Maine, has had his own struggles, with alcohol and drugs. He has chronicled them in his autobiography, "Atlas: Too much too soon." He said it's an honor to be invited to perform at WPSD.

"I want to show people that if I can come [from] Maine to do this, you can take a short trip to help Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf," Mr. Atlas said. "You can hear me talk and I can hear you. We've been blessed with the ability to hear, and they haven't."

Tickets for Deaf WrestleFest are $20 for general admission and $25 for ringside seats. Tickets will be at the door in the school gym at 300 E. Swissvale Ave.