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Governor Wolf Recognizes L&I Employee for Exemplary Leadership in Advocating for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Pennsylvanians During COVID-19 Pandemic

05/20/2022

Harrisburg, PA - Today, Governor Tom Wolf honored Department of Labor & Industry (L&I) employee Melissa Hawkins with a Governor's Award for Excellence in recognition of her work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to facilitate the delivery of critical, life-saving information to Pennsylvanians with disabilities through the services of certified deaf interpreters.

In her role as director of Pennsylvania's Office for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing (ODHH) within L&I's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), Hawkins collaborated with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and Department of Health to bring critical information to Pennsylvanians who are deaf and hard of hearing to keep them informed of the latest information related to COVID-19 and the Wolf Administration's efforts to protect Pennsylvanians.

"This year's award recipients lead by example and embody my administration's commitment and dedication to providing accessible, inclusive resources to all Pennsylvanians during these unprecedented times," said Governor Wolf. "As Pennsylvania endured the pandemic, Melissa's unwavering determination to assess the needs of the deaf community and guarantee equal access to health and safety information illustrates the selfless work being done every day by commonwealth employees and is a wonderful example of taking initiative to mitigate the spread of the contagious, deadly virus."

At the start of the pandemic, to keep the deaf and hard of hearing community informed, Hawkins and ODHH teamed up with health officials to create educational videos in American Sign Language during the COVID-19 pandemic, including: "Coping and Mental Health Tactics," "What is a Pandemic," "How to Communicate with Your Children," and many more developed by Commonwealth Media Services – ultimately empowering the deaf and hard of hearing community to make informed decisions for themselves and loved ones.

"Melissa and her team worked with public servants throughout the commonwealth to guarantee that individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing were provided the clearest information about COVID-19 at a time when the stakes couldn't have been higher," said L&I Secretary Jennifer Berrier. "Melissa went above and beyond to serve this community and ensure their safety with quality interpretive services."

In 2020, ODHH created a COVID-19 Communication Card, geared toward Call Centers established as COVID-19 hotlines for individuals who needed information about vaccinations, hospitals, and Department of Health resources. As a result, the COVID-19 Communication Cards were used as a tool to help those answering the calls relay communication and health-related assistance to individuals during the pandemic. Hawkins also worked closely with L&I's Unemployment Compensation office to implement assisted technology so people who are deaf or hard of hearing could apply for UC benefits.

"Melissa's commitment to supporting Pennsylvanians represents the very best of public service at L&I," said Ryan Hyde, director of OVR. "ODHH is a vital resource for people with hearing loss, and this has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. OVR remains steadfast in advocating for all Pennsylvanians to ensure no one is left behind during challenging times."

Hawkins, an Adams County native and graduate of Gettysburg Area High School, was previously the executive director of the Disability Empowerment Center (DEC), a non-profit organization and center for independent living providing services and support to individuals with disabilities in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties. Hawkins earned a bachelor's degree in Applied Behavioral Sciences from Pennsylvania State University.

"I am overwhelmed with gratitude to have been selected to receive the Governor's Award for Excellence," Hawkins said. "The pandemic highlighted the critical importance of community trust, and of having strong and accessible communication channels between the Governor's Office, the Department of Health, other commonwealth agencies and the public. Never in my lifetime was that communication access so critically needed. I am grateful and appreciative for the interpreters, captioners, Commonwealth Media Services and all who contributed to ensuring this information was shared."

The Governor's Awards for Excellence awards recognize employees for exemplary job performance or service that reflects initiative, leadership, innovation, and increased efficiency. Employees or a group of employees are nominated by a co-worker for the award. Hawkins is one of 50 employees from 12 agencies being recognized for exceptional accomplishments in 2021. 

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MEDIA CONTACT:  Alex Peterson, dlipress@pa.gov

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