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October 17, 2002

Gouker selected as 2002 Outstanding Young Marylander

From: Maryland Gazette Newspapers, MD
Oct. 17, 2002

by Tyisha Manigo
Special to The Gazette
Oct. 17, 2002

Growing up, Middletown resident Nikki Gouker always admired Princess Diana. She marveled at the late princess' humanity, her kindness and her uncanny ability to make individual feel special.

Princess Diana "had a way of looking at people and seeing their hearts. I think that's such a beautiful gift," Gouker said.

They are also qualities that the 22-year-old has tried to emulate in her own life as an advocate for the deaf. In the last four years, Gouker has volunteered more than 1,000 hours in service as an American Sign Language interpreter for Frederick County. Her duties include a position as a deaf ministry interpreter at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Frederick and as a sign language interpreter for Deafnet of Washington, a Washington County nonprofit organization that provides interpreter services for the hearing impaired.

In 1999, Gouker founded Helpers are Needed for Deaf Signing (H.A.N.D.S.), an instructional workshop that teaches people the basics of American Sign Language.

Recently, Gouker was selected as the 2002 Outstanding Young Marylander by the Frederick Jaycees of Maryland. The award recognizes Marylanders between the ages of 21 and 40 for their social achievements or contributions to the community.

Her own work is fueled by her compassion and love for others ­ both the hearing and the hearing-impaired. "I want to make each person feel like they are the most important person in the world," she said. "I just love people"

Jennifer Grove, chairwoman of the Jaycees award program, said Gouker is truly deserving of the honor because of her achievements and commitment to the community.

"I think she's an amazing person," Grove said, commenting on how Gouker has achieved more in her 22 years than most people will in their entire lifetime.

Frederick Alderman Dave Lenhart, one of the program's judges and a past recipient of the award, agreed.

"Nikki is teaching others to fish as opposed to doing the fishing for them," he said. "She is making possible the ability for people to communicate and understand qualities of service before self."

Gouker's mother, Sandi, who nominated her for the award, said her daughter's humanitarianism has always been evident.

"She has always been someone who cares about other people's feelings and has been a very empathetic, caring individual. I don't know if I can take credit for it. It seems to be something she was born with," Sandi Gouker said.

Nikki Gouker attributes her activism and interaction with the deaf community to a deaf classmate she befriended while attending Middletown Middle School.

The friendship helped foster her own interest in sign language and the deaf community, Gouker said.

"A lot of people don't realize the history of the deaf. It's fascinating and shocking to learn about what deaf people of gone through," said Gouker, referring to earlier practices in which teachers were prohibited from using sign language to communicate with deaf students.

"As hearing people, we take a lot of things for granted," she said.

H.A.N.D.S. -- along with it's accompanying instructional video -- is intended to help the hearing be able to reach out to deaf people, Gouker said.

"I saw there was need in the community to better communicate with deaf people," said Gouker. H.A.N.D.S. "is a start. People won't be qualified to be interpreters but I think people need that initiative."

For Gouker, who admits to being shocked and humbled by the award, her main objective continues to be her advocacy on behalf of the deaf. She wants to become a nationally certified interpreter and is currently working on a soon-to-be-published children's book for the National Association for the Deaf.

An English teacher at Urbana High School, Gouker considers herself to be a role model in and out of the classroom, and hopes her service work inspires others to do the same.

"I really want people to see my enthusiasm and apply it to their own lives," she said.

Copyright © 2002 Gazette Newspapers