Local woman earns state award for work with the disabled
by Staff Writer
DAVIDSON – When Connie Hawkins’ son, Michael, was born in 1975 with significant language, communication and learning disabilities, there was little help available for parents.
Connie took Michael to see doctors soon after his birth, all of whom were quick to say Michael would never live an ordinary life, and offered little, if any, advice about treatment or physical therapy.
“It’s hard to be a parent and listen to so many opinions about your child,” Hawkins said.
Fast forward nearly 30 years and Hawkins is the co-founder of the Davidson-based Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center. The center offers families and parents of children with special needs advice, guidance and resources to help their child succeed.
And her son Michael didn’t go on to live an ordinary life but instead an extraordinary one, earning a degree from Mars Hill College and is now teaching English to students in China for the third year.
Hawkins said that Michael’s success is due largely to professionals willing to guide and help him over the years and also due to the knowledge she gained as co-founder of the center on how to navigate the special education system in public schools.
Hawkins was recently recognized with the 2011 Jack B. Hefner Memorial Award from the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities for her work with the assistance center, which has branches all over the state.
The Hefner award was established in 1994 and is the highest honor given by the statewide organization in recognition of those who work to promote changes that enhance the quality of life for people with developmental disabilities, according to a news release about the award.
The assistance center has nearly 30 employees and numerous volunteers, nearly all of whom are parents with first-hand experience in dealing with children with significant disabilities.
“ECAC is committed to keeping parents informed,” Hawkins said. “We are a parent center that is parent-run and the majority of our staff is parents.”
Over the last five years, the center has received more than 100,000 phone calls from families in need and more than 900,000 visits to its website www.ecac-parentcenter.org, Hawkins said.
The center also has a substantial collection of books that they send to parents all over the country. Hawkins said the center has amassed more than 4,300 different titles ranging from treatment and physical therapy to civil rights.
“We have only lost a few books,” said Hawkins. “People read them quick and send them back because they know people are waiting on them.”
The center also offers workshops and classes to parents of children with special needs all over the state. They also encourage non-English-speaking parents to speak to school officials and the school board if they believe something is wrong, Hawkins said.
While Hawkins’ mission to help families of children with disabilities often takes place in offices and the classroom, she’s also been active with the group in lobbying local legislators.
“I want to see the day that people working in politics are the same people who grew up sitting next to a friend with disabilities in class,” Hawkins said. “With that kind of experience, you’ve got a person to put with the issues.”
The plaque for the Hefner award hangs in Hawkins’ office at the Exceptional Children’s Assistance office at 907 Barra Row, surrounded by a dozen or so other plaques that honor all of the service she has done over the decades.
While Hawkins may be used to receiving accolades for her work, that doesn’t mean she necessarily likes receiving them.
“I am not the person who likes personal awards,” Hawkins said. “But I like the recognition that ECAC receives for its hard work.”
Want to know more?
For more information on the Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center visit www.ecac-parentcenter.org or call 704-892-1321.