Lake Norman & Mooresville

Mom first coached others to be advocates

When Cornelius resident Connie Hawkins' son Michael began kindergarten in 1980, she was discouraged to find there wasn't a lot of support for families like hers.

At the time, he was diagnosed with a communication disorder and learning disabilities

When he began school, however, awareness of such disabilities was lacking.

And it wasn't until 1975 that the United States passed the Education of the Handicapped Act, which is a predecessor of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The act gave students with disabilities the right to an education in public schools.

So Hawkins, along with other parents in the Lake Norman area, created an organization that would coach parents on how to advocate for their disabled children.

"What I had to do early on was figure out how to advocate for what Michael needed in a way that was effective," Hawkins said. "I wanted to share that information with other parents."

Today, she is the executive director of the nearly 30-year-old Exceptional Children's Assistance Center in Davidson.

The nonprofit organization provides services ranging from parent workshops to information on laws affecting children with disabilities. The center also coaches them on how to negotiate for educational programming their disabled children are entitled to under the law.

Recently, the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities presented Hawkins with the 2011 Jack B. Hefner Memorial Award, the council's highest honor that recognizes advocates for disabled people.

"She really has a presence that you can feel when she comes into the rooms. There's something that you can't quantify. It is leadership and passion and intellect all rolled into one," said Holly Riddle, executive director of the N.C. Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Demand for services at the Exceptional Children's Assistance Center in Davidson has grown each year, said Hawkins. In 2011, the center responded to more than 40,000 requests for information and help.

All of the center's services are free to parents, said Hawkins.

"Our overarching theme is to help parents become their child's best advocate. Not just in the education system. We also do healthcare and other areas too," said Hawkins, adding that the organization is not disability specific.

Hawkins also said the organization provides assistance to teachers and relatives of children with disabilities.

Bob Rickelman, the chair of the council that selected Hawkins for the state award, said he was impressed by Hawkins' passion for all children with disabilities, not just her son.

She also serves as an example of what happens when parents are their child's best advocate.

With her support, Hawkins' son Michael earned a college degree and even landed a job teaching English in China three years ago.

"Part of the reason I'm really passionate about the whole thing is because his original diagnosis were pretty limited as far as what he would do with his life," she said. "He does have some barriers but he's figured out some good ways around them."

Hawkins said she was pleased with the recent recognition but emphasized that her entire staff is deserving of the award.

She added that she hopes the award will help more families with children with disabilities find the center.

"The more families that know about us, the better," she said.