In a rich alto, Erika Atkins sings the lines from the musical "Evita."
"So what happens now? Take your picture off the wall.
So what happens now? Pack your suitcase and begone."
She brings her petite hands to her chest and lifts her shoulders for emphasis. It's as if the sparse dining room in her mother's row house in Washington has become her stage. Erika, 13, enthusiastically describes her various parts as a backup singer in her summer drama camp's two-week production at American University.
She seems bold and outgoing, and she sparkles when a visitor asks about her ambitions. Erika--who will be a freshman this year at Loudoun County High School in Leesburg, where she lives with her father--says she's bound for stardom as an actress and singer. It's a dream she's had since she was 3.
But her confidence wasn't always so apparent.
Since elementary school, Erika had struggled to hear high-pitched voices and pronounce words that end with "s" or "ed." School officials diagnosed her with a hearing problem in 1994, and her father, a professional Fairfax County firefighter, scraped together money to buy her what she calls "bulky boxes"--hearing aids that fit behind her ear.
She complained to her audiologist that the aids were unfashionable and awkward, so she rarely wore them. She begged her father for $80 hair extensions to cover up the pink and beige plastic devices. After hearing about more sleek devices that would fit inside her ear, she asked for those.
But Rickie Atkins, a former Marine Corps officer who also has an 11-year-old daughter, didn't have the $2,400.
Enter Leesburg's biggest benefactor.
Irwin Uran, a multimillionaire from California who lived for a time in Leesburg, gave the Blue Ridge Hearing and Speech Center about $20,000 last December for people such as Erika. Days before Christmas, she received the much-coveted hearing aids that match her dark skin. Her siblings jokingly call them chocolate candy in her ears.
"You couldn't get a better Christmas gift," Atkins said. "She got the most state-of-the-art hearing aids. It's been such a blessing. She can hear more crisply, and the braids aren't as important anymore."
Erika, who wears her hair short now, is hesitant to admit that her hearing was ever a major problem, but she tells how she used to watch television with the sound off because it was more efficient to read lips. She dreaded weekly spelling tests in elementary school because she couldn't hear the teacher calling out the words.
"I don't think the [new] hearing aids really changed me," Erika said, as she played with her two baby brothers at her mother's house one afternoon. "I'm very, very normal. I talk on the phone. I like boy bands. But now I can hear what I'm saying to other people better."
Her performance in school and extracurricular activities has showed the effects of the hearing aids. She has performed in school plays and county chorus groups and attended drama and arts camps. Her grades rose from B's and C's to A's and B's. Next year she is taking three honors classes.
When she got the new hearing aids, she said classmates at Simpson Middle School would yell, "Erika, can you hear me?" as if she were deaf. To overcome the taunts, she gave a show-and-tell exhibit on them and soon began socializing more, her friends and family members said.
Still, she is working on her enunciation. She catches herself as she talks about her favorite group, the Backstreet Boys, and slows down to get out the end of each word.
"When she was little, she used to say 'mote control' for remote control," said her mother, Gina Lewis, 34, a folk artist. Her parents overlooked her saying "children," for example, as "shilgren."
"We just thought that was the way she talked," Lewis said. "She's always been bright."
Now her counselors at Blue Ridge are seeing Erika enjoy her gifts more. "The real Erika is coming out," said Sherry Trocino, the center's director of development.
In the latest Simpson yearbook, she wrote a message to herself: "Dear Erika, I'm growing up more everyday, but it's so cool. . . . I pray to God everything will be all right and go the way I plan."
CAPTION: Erika Atkins, center, who is studying theater this summer, wears a state-of-the-art hearing aid courtesy of multimillionaire Irwin Uran.
CAPTION: Atkins sings at her American University drama camp. She will be a freshman at Loudoun County High School in Leesburg.
CAPTION: Erika Atkins has grown more self-confident, especially with her new hearing aid, provided by the Blue Ridge Speech and Hearing Center.