FALMOUTH, Maine — The Maine Educational Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing has a new director, Karen Hopkins. She is the first deaf female to sit at the helm of the school which serves over 500 hard of hearing and deaf Mainers from birth until they are 21-years-old.
For Hopkins, growing up in Millinocket the only deaf person in her school and community and never having the opportunity to meet other deaf people meant she often felt isolated. But in truth, she says she did not know she was deaf until she went to college.
"I was born as a hard-of-hearing individual and became deaf later in life," explains Hopkins.
At age 17, Hopkins left Maine to attend Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. the only college in the world for deaf people. It was there that for the first time, she met other deaf people.
"I started to focus on my identity, who I was and what I had missed all those years growing up being the only deaf child in my life," says Hopkins.
She learned American Sign Language and when she graduated she felt she must return home and help other children avoid the isolation she often felt.
For the last 25 years, that is what she has been doing and she continues that mission as the director of the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf.
Hopkins helped develop the school's preschool program which is recognized nationally for its excellence. Several teachers and leaders from other deaf schools around the country have visited Mackworth Island to see the program in action.
Among her many goals for the school is to ensure that all deaf and hard-of-hearing children meet other children like them and that they have opportunities to gather.
When Covid-19 hit in March, Hopkins says the school was already well-equipped to adapt because they already used technology like zoom to provide services and support to children and adults statewide. But an obvious challenge to deaf and hard of hearing people has been mask-wearing.
"It's really tough, not being able to see some of the important linguistic information that's on the face not being able to access some of that speech reading as well," explains Hopkins. The school is using masks with a clear shield in them to help show people's lips but Hopkins admits they do not work well, fogging often.
Hopkins says if there were one thing she could communicate with hearing people about deaf and hard of hearing individuals it would be that they can do and achieve anything.