FALMOUTH — The Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing will welcome Karen Hopkins as its new executive director on Jan. 1.

Karen Hopkins Courtesy / Karen Hopkins

It is truly my honor to lead MECDHH into its next chapter,” Hopkins said in an email to The Forecaster. “I will give all that I have to ensure deaf and hard-of-hearing children have every opportunity they can possibly have to reach their personal success.”

Hopkin’s passion comes from her own experiences growing up in Millinocket as the only deaf child in her family and in her school. She didn’t have the opportunity to meet another deaf person until she stepped foot on the campus of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world’s only university for deaf individuals, when she was 17. 

“Upon graduation, I knew I had to come back home to make a difference for deaf and hard-of-hearing children and their families,” Hopkins said.

She has been with Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf for 25 years.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic posed new challenges, Hopkins said the agency adapted immediately.

“Our organization jumped into the virtual world within a week’s time,” Hopkins said. “My staff are used to being statewide anyway, so a lot of the work we do is virtual. We connected with schools in every district of the state of Maine and sent out a notification saying, ‘We are here for you and we’ll continue to meet the students’ needs.'”

Hopkins was recently awarded Maine’s federal Health Resources & Services Administration grant, which provides funds to offer training, resources and parent-to-parent support for families of deaf children from the moment they are born, according to Hopkins. It also offers the opportunity for parents to meet other deaf adults.

The center, based at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf on Mackworth Island, is a statewide agency funded by the Department of Education as the go-to agency in Maine serving deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals from infants to 21-year-old young adults.

Leslie Gil, an assistant teacher of the deaf, works with a preschool student on Mackworth Island. Courtesy / Karen Hopkins

The Governor Baxter School for the Deaf now houses a preschool on Mackworth Island, but its services extend to Portland Public Schools for grades K-12.

The agency’s statewide educational services department offers two programs, the Early Childhood and Family Services program and the Public School Outreach program.

Amber Woodcock of Gardiner sent her deaf son to preschool on Mackworth Island for 3½ years and continues to utilize the center’s Early Childhood and Family Services and Public School Outreach programs as her child is now in second grade. Woodcock said her son was born with mild hearing loss, but when he was 3 they discovered it had progressed and that he would eventually go deaf.

“I would’ve been lost without MECDHH,” Woodcock said. “I went in the day after we had his appointment when we found out and talked to Karen Hopkins and one of the audiologists down there. They helped me get through all the stuff I had to process as a parent in order to help my child.”

Liberty Herweh, an eighth-grader in Presque Isle, has been utilizing services from the center since fifth grade. Prior to the pandemic, a regional teacher of the deaf for MECDHH would come to school with Herweh weekly. The teacher helped Herweh transition between different classes and different schools since fifth grade Now that Herweh’s school is completely remote, she meets with all her teachers virtually.

Herweh said the most valuable part about this for her is “having someone there who is your teacher, but also your friend. So you’re not uncomfortable talking about if you’re having trouble with a teacher or having a hard time hearing quieter friends. Sometimes its really difficult having that conversation with an adult.”

Herweh has two cochlear implants that she received at 5 and 8 years old. They have given her partial hearing and allowed her to communicate through spoken language. However, since she’s met deaf friends through the center, she is determined to learn sign language.

“We’ve lived in four different states since she’s had hearing loss and Maine does, by far, the most amazing job working with families,” said Dixie Herweh, Liberty’s mom. “Here we are, literally at the top of Maine, and yet she is still getting exactly what she needs.”

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