Berks Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services celebrates 50th anniversary – Reading Eagle
Margaret Danowski was a busy mother of five living in Reading town center when her 5-year-old daughter, Rita, was diagnosed with hearing loss in 1964.
At that time, services for the deaf were virtually non-existent, even when it came to basic things like schooling. Local deaf students attended the school for the blind, where they were taught by a blind teacher.
“I thought to myself, how can this blind teacher teach these deaf children? Danowski said. “It bothered me.”
She took it upon herself to educate herself so she could defend her daughters and others, which meant venturing into a whole new world.
“I’ve never met deaf people before,” she says, “and I wanted to know how I could meet deaf people. And there was a deaf club on Franklin Street, the Reading Association of the Deaf. It was a bar. And the only man (Rudy Ernesto) invited us to come.
“Well, if it wasn’t an experiment. Everyone is deaf and I can hear. I came with a friend who knew sign language so she helped me communicate, but it was a weird experience the first time I met a whole bunch of deaf people. And I learned that they are no different from us, really.
At the time, Danowski could not have imagined how much his daughter’s medical condition would affect her life, or how she, in turn, would impact the lives of so many other deaf Berks counties. or hard of hearing.
Danowski was instrumental in founding the Berks County Association for the Hearing Impaired, which later became Berks Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary as the premier advocacy agency for the hearing impaired in the region.
What Danowski started as a one-woman agency operating out of her townhouse now has 12 employees and 50 freelance contract interpreters serving more than 10,000 clients in 10 counties. Its annual budget in 1972: $200. Its annual budget now: $1.6 million.
“I just felt a call,” Danowski said of his recent apartment in Cumru Township. “There was so much I didn’t know about deafness, and I was so grateful that my daughter wasn’t totally deaf. I just wanted to do something to help her and the others.
And did she ever.
“If she hadn’t felt inspired because of her daughter,” said Kandy Reyes, the current executive director of BDHHS, “they wouldn’t have an agency like this, and she wouldn’t have this legacy.”
What is now Berks Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services evolved from a group of parents Danowski joined after his daughter was diagnosed.
“She was hard of hearing,” Danowski said, “and I thought it only happened to old people, you know? And one of the audiologists told me he was going to have a meeting with the parents so you could learn how to deal with that, so I went in. And they told me to start a parent group, so I joined in. Then, you know, so many things that we didn’t know were happening.
Those first meetings with 10 parents took place at Tyson-Schoener Elementary School on South Fifth Street.
“We didn’t have any money, so I asked people if they could contribute so we could give people coffee and cookies when they came,” Danowski said.
Soon after, she founded the agency with the help of some of the other parents, including Dr. Brian and Helen Wummer and Lester and Thelma Meck, and began operating from her home. Soon after, she hired a part-time secretary to help her with day-to-day tasks like writing a newsletter and arranging sign language and lip-reading classes.
One of their first projects was to establish a kindergarten for the deaf at Fifth and Franklin streets, with the help of Lucille Kantor.
Local organizations like United Way and the Lions and Sertoma Clubs championed their cause, as did the late State Senator Michael A. O’Pake, who served as toastmaster at the agency’s first banquet in 1972.
“United Way has been a blessing, I’ll tell you,” said Danowski, who oversaw the organization for its first 30 years. “Between them and all these different support groups giving us money, I was just amazed. We started getting all this equipment that I didn’t even know existed, like a ticker.
Examples of vintage equipment, including teletypes over the years and an Egg chair, used for hearing tests, are on display in the museum room at BDHHS headquarters on Center Avenue, which is the agency’s sixth location . (It also has a satellite office in Lancaster.)
“I put the museum there because the BCIU kids come and don’t know what the old technology looks like,” Reyes said. “When they come for the holiday party, we show them (so they can appreciate the progress).”
Rise to the occasion
Reyes is a story in itself.
The daughter of Lynwood and Marion Fisher, both deaf, Reyes, who hears, grew up in Reading in the days before the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted, which requires interpreting services to be made available deaf people. She spent her childhood performing for her parents, never imagining that this would prefigure her life’s work. In fact, it was probably the last thing she wanted to do.
She explained, “At a very young age, you get drawn into doing car loans and home loans, and if they yell at someone, you yell at them. So you go through all that, and when I was 13, I became rebellious.
“My mother was losing her sight and I had to go grocery shopping with her and it took three hours. At 13, you don’t feel like going to the grocery store for three hours, so I was like, ‘Why me? Why do I have to go through this?’ “
But eight years later, she saw an ad in the newspaper for a job as a secretary that required sign language, so she decided to apply. The ad had been placed by Danowski.
By this time, Reyes had become more compassionate about the struggles her parents had been through, giving some perspective to her own self-pity. She remembers hearing her dad recount his experience of being dropped off at Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia when he was 5, and seeing his parents take the long driveway and think they had left him there because they didn’t like him because he was deaf.
“At 21, your mind changes and you think, ‘This is terrible; I would hate to see that,” Reyes said. “And I was very lucky. My parents were good to me. They raised me well. So when you think about those things, it made me feel like, you know what, that’s something that I could really see supporting.
Reyes went to work for the agency in 1993. Danowski retired four years later, and three years later, with the agency going through a bit of turmoil, Reyes decided the time was right to take the helm.
“I was scared for the agency at that time,” she said, “because I saw it might not go well. Marge was working too hard and everyone else was working too hard, so I was like, ‘OK, I have to get to work.’ I got the job (in May 2000) and have been there ever since.
Twenty-five years in all, to be exact, half the agency’s existence. And during that time, she has become an indispensable advocate for the local deaf community.
change for the better
With all the technological advances and the rights of deaf people, Jeanette Boice, deaf from birth, now considers hearing and deaf people as equals. But she said that’s not always the case.
With Reyes, who learned sign language before she learned to speak, deftly serving as an interpreter in a five-person conversation, Boice discussed some of the changes she’s seen in her life.
For one, signing was discouraged as a child at Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.
“They forced us to read lips,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to use sign language. We would be hit with the leaders on our hands if we signed, until 1971 when there was a protest against the need for full disclosure. Then it got a lot better.
Boice leads a busy, productive and integrated life. When her eldest son tragically died in a domestic accident, it inspired her to take an active role in helping the local deaf community. She taught American Sign Language at Reading Area Community College for over 20 years and spends countless hours helping out in the BDHHS office, where she serves on the board of trustees and chaired the 50th anniversary committee.
A night to remember
Boice was instrumental in organizing the 50th anniversary gala held June 3 at Crowne Plaza Reading in Wyomissing, where Danowski received a 1968 dime necklace in recognition of his contributions to the agency.
“A legend in her own way and in her time – that’s Marge Danowski,” said agency member AbbySue Schappell by way of introduction.
State Senator Judy Schwank spoke, as did Elizabeth Hill, president of the Pennsylvania Society for Advancement of the Deaf.
And in telling their stories of perseverance, four high achievers from the local deaf community inspired: Carolyn Kertell Kirkpatrick, former Miss Deaf Reading and Miss Deaf Pennsylvania and former chair of the BDHHS board of directors; Kadie Trauger, who has cochlear implants and battles Usher syndrome; Kevin Steffy, who is Deputy Administrator of Technology for the State of Maryland; and Kathy Hartman, former chair of the board who retired in 2014 after 26 years as an administrative assistant at National Penn Bank.
But the spotlight shone most on the person who helped activate these four speakers: Marge Danowski.
“All my kids were there,” Danowski said, “and they said, ‘Mom, look what a legacy you left. “
Bradley Stewart, the agency’s director of human resources, said there are still plenty of inspiring stories to come.
“I think it’s important for us to continue to grow and connect with younger generations so they know our agency is here to serve them, and to continue bringing people interested in helping the deaf community and to advocate for them to get involved and help us with this mission,” he said. “I can say from my perspective that I have never worked with a group of people so passionate about this they do and the people they serve.”