IM this article to a friend!

April 2, 2004

Director rounds up resources to help those with hearing loss

From:, MI - Apr 2, 2004

By Teresa Taylor Williams

Bonnie Vokits knows firsthand the importance of being an advocate for the deaf.

The director of a new resource center for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, Vokits has hearing loss herself.

Vokits learned sign language after she was told in her 20s that her hearing loss would progress with age.

"I was concerned that no one would communicate with me," she said.

Soon she was using her interpreting skills in a deaf ministry at a local church. She went on to work for the past decade as a clinical social worker specializing in therapy for the deaf and hearing-impaired in Muskegon and the Grand Rapids area.

"I began to recognize the extreme needs of the deaf and the isolation they experience," she said. "I started to question if there is money available to get an agency started."

Over the past year, she devoted much of her time and energy to establish a clearinghouse of services for people with hearing loss in Muskegon.

With the grant-writing help of MOKA Executive Director Thomas Zmolek and John McKendry Jr., whom she met at a church function years ago, Vokits was able to secure funding from several organizations, including the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, Fremont Foundation, Gerber Foundation, Grand Haven Foundation and the Michigan Department of Career Development.

The result of their efforts is Muskegon's new Deaf/Hard of Hearing Connection, of which Vokits is executive director. The center, which opened in October, provides residents of Muskegon, Ottawa, Oceana and Newaygo counties with support and advocacy services and assistive hearing devices. It also provides interpreters to hospitals, mental health agencies, churches, legal facilities and employers.

Organizers said a one-stop agency offering services for the deaf and hard of hearing in West Michigan is long overdue. The closest had been in Grand Rapids, they said.

There are an estimated 4,674 deaf individuals in the four-county area, and 27,454 people who have some hearing loss.

"Previously when a deaf child was born here, there was virtually no help for parents," Vokits said. "The closest place of this kind is in Grand Rapids."

MOKA Executive Director Thomas Zmolek gave the center a home, providing office space in the MOKA building at 3391 Merriam for the next three years and assisting with payroll. MOKA is a nonprofit human services agency that assists people with disabilities in Muskegon, Ottawa, Kent and Allegan counties.

McKendry, chairman of the board, took time from his work to write grants for various programs.

McKendry, a local attorney, is passionate about serving people with the disability because his parents are deaf.

"I learned to talk and sign at the same time," he said.

McKendry said he is assisting in bringing his father's vision of a gathering place for the deaf to fruition. His father, John McKendry, is a retired machinist for the Chronicle.

"My mom and dad are just thrilled about this," McKendry said. One of his sisters, Patty, also sits on the resource center's board. She is deaf.

"There is a genuine need to enable the deaf to access resources at one particular place," McKendry said. "We really needed this center to enable us to make the connection between the deaf and hearing world and all of the resources available to them."

Those involved with the center want to be able to help employers communicate and train those with hearing loss.

But there is a shortage of certified interpreters in West Michigan. Services are scheduled two weeks in advance, said Vokits, who is 57 and wears hearing aides in both ears. She is advocating for the establishment of interpreter training programs at Baker College and Muskegon Community College.

There are five interpreters in Muskegon County and eight in Ottawa County. All work in various school systems. There are none in Oceana or Newaygo counties.

"We have a severe shortage of interpreters," Vokits said. "If someone goes to the hospital during the day who is deaf, there is no one available until after school hours."

© 2004 Muskegon Chronicle. Used with permission

Copyright 2004 Michigan Live. All Rights Reserved.