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Powerful Women: Let's Talk – 74: Deb Atwood

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Deb Atwood
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Deb Atwood, Executive Director of Director of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, is our guest on this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk

Deb Atwood is the energetic Executive Director of Director of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services and first joined the organization as a volunteer. Deb says that making a positive difference in someone’s life is a huge motivator, especially when it is a first life experience for a deaf child. Deb is a boater, gardener, and a grandma too. Deb Atwood joins us for this episode of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.


Full Transcript:

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Intro: Produced by women about women. Powerful women. Let's talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world transforming who we are and how we live.

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Shelly Irwin: Deb Atwood is the energetic executive director of D and H H S we'll tell you what that's all about. First joined the organization. As a volunteer. She says that making a positive difference in someone's life is a huge motivator, especially when it is the first life experience such as, a deaf child communicating the deaf Santa for the first time. That's where we're going. Deb is a boater Gardener Grandma and no doubt True servant, and she's here as a powerful woman. Let's talk.

Deb Atwood: hey, how are you? Thank you for having me today.

Shelly Irwin: Fine. Let's answer that question. Tell me what those alphabet numbers stood for

Deb Atwood: deaf and hard of hearing services or ABC. What are we going to talk about which one?

Shelly Irwin: let’s start with D and HHS

Deb Atwood: deaf and hard of hearing services.

Shelly Irwin: Yes, how did you come to find this niche.

Deb Atwood: Well, I think it was 2001, there was a deaf boy within our family that needed home for a while. And so, we took him in, and we needed. We have never been around anybody that was deaf before didn't know the language. So, we were pointed to deaf, etcetera at the time and they set us up with sign language classes activities that were going on so we can get this little guy within a culture within the deaf culture because they do have their own culture. So, we volunteered went to different things, took ASL learned how to sign and then eventually I volunteered got on the board, just kind of person. I am. I and it's all history from there.

Shelly Irwin: back to that true servant and now, put the grandma hat on for one 2nd. Can you name the names of all your grand kids?

Deb Atwood: Cody, Blake, Jaden, Lilly, Jack, Emma, grace,

Shelly Irwin: you’re good. We'll get back to that.

Deb Atwood: Thank you.

Shelly Irwin: So, the deaf culture, Take me back to a young. Deb, do you have any memories of special needs, friend or any he or she needs extra. Help me. Were you a true servant as a child?

Deb Atwood: I got that from my family who was friends with another family, and they had a little guy that had down syndrome. They owned a business. And so, I hung out with their kids and the worked with in the business and all this was, you know, 50 some years ago. So, at that time there weren't the agency's there weren't all this exposure. Nobody had all the knowledge. Nobody had all the facts. The education wasn't there, but they raised that kid did a great, great job with him. Actually. They sponsored a lot of I would say special Olympics things entered him in that. So, it's kind of full circle where we're coming back now. I just was accustomed to it just part of the way.

Shelly Irwin: fill in some blanks for me, education, other careers that you've taken on

Deb Atwood: graduated from Davenport college, have a associates degree in retail management. I've done food management. I've done retail management basically been in management all my life could never carry a tray with any food or drink on it spilled on the floor. So, they put me in management.

Shelly Irwin: we all learn by your mistakes.

Deb Atwood: Yes, we do.

Shelly Irwin: What is the deaf culture and how has this responsibility that you've taken on from volunteer to that big job you have now changed your life. I mean, it's a career versus job for you.

Deb Atwood: Absolutely. It's a passion. When We got this little guy. We learned right away that there is totally a different culture on how you get their attention to how, you know, if you need to say something that if two deaf. People are having a conversation and they're signing it's OK to walk through there. If you stop and go. Excuse me or say something. You're interrupting them that can be very rude if you need to get attention in the room. You kind of turn the light on and off. That's okay. There's a lot of things within the deaf culture that most hearing people would go it's really rude. I would never do that. I would never interrupt anybody. I would never change conversations that quickly. It's their own culture.

Shelly Irwin: back to your transition from volunteer to. Employee. often oftentimes life is an opportunity that moves into a career. Tell me more about how young a young woman can make that happen in her life.

Deb Atwood: Well, for me, it was that I was volunteering and such and there were some issues going on within the agency. I wasn't on the board at the time and the board at that time asked me and another woman, Megan Smedley who had been in the community forever. If we come in a kind of help the agency along. So, we went in volunteered for probably 10 months, 4050, hours a week just to get things up and running. And then I think probably that December following January. They asked if we would you know become staff. So, she become the executive director became and I became the business manager and. Never looked back. Never quit

Shelly Irwin: back to motivation. You do say that making a positive difference in someone's life is a huge motivator. Did this come from an upbringing again, how can a young Deb become at that is at her core.

Deb Atwood: Absolutely. Life is what you make it. I'm old school. I was raised and went to school in the 70's went to college in the 70's. Weren’t a lot of women in management at that time it was rough coming up. So, you had to be forceful yet. Not sit back enough just to let people take advantage of you, but make sure that your heard not take advantage of people train the next one up and just be there and listen participate and just make sure that you have that passion for that.

Shelly Irwin: The deaf community and these times of covid when we are all wearing a mask can tell me about how you’re advocating for change.

Deb Atwood: It is so frustrating because the deaf community, as isolated as it is. And then when covid hit, people couldn’t go to doctor's appointments. They couldn't go to the hospital. They couldn't go anywhere, and everything was shut down. Well, think about it that, you know, you can't go to your doctor. So, you've got to do it now on a TV screen. Well, hopefully they get you an interpreter. If you can’t hear the conversation, you need an interpreter there. That's really the way it needs to work. And so, we pushed a lot. We finally got some of the face mask that have to clear so they can read the lips because a lot of them do depend on some lip reading. You have the hard of hearing and you can tell a lot of hard of hearing people that they will start watching your lips as they move just to see what you're saying. So that was a huge push working with Lansing and getting an interpreter for the governor. Any of the main speeches so that the deaf community would know what was going on. Not just depend on close caption. If you've ever used close caption, how often are they correct.

Shelly Irwin: There are mistakes made.

Deb Atwood: There are a lot of mistakes made. Yes. And so, you will see now that a lot of them, you know, the presentations and such that are made from, you know, state leaders are using interpreters and it's coming back. But still, it's difficult. It's very difficult. You are working with “tele med” that we're working with, you know, different things for the communities and we're trying to get more interpreters in place because it's much easier for them. If they have a live interpreter there for a while when they were hospitalized, there was no guests allowed. So, they considered interpreters to be guests. And so, we had to go around with some of the of major companies such as the saying, no, they're not guests their interpreter. They need to be there It’s a lot of Now it's knowledge building a lot of education constantly never goes away.

Shelly Irwin: Does your community do they realize the hard work you put in as a hearing Person. If I can ask that question.

Deb Atwood: I believe so. I really do believe so I believe to the point that they they know it. They appreciate it to the point that they will come back and say what about this. What about this? We need to do this because they're comfortable enough to do that now. And I've always told my staff and I've always told my volunteers this is their community. We work for them and make sure we all remember that we have to listen to them. I don't know what it's like being deaf I grew up hearing. Obviously, I'm still hearing I don't know what it is to walk in their shoes. And I think people need to realize that more and more. We don't know what people are going through walk in their shoes

Shelly Irwin: what is your leadership style. That's obviously successful

Deb Atwood: direct and to the point I don't pull any punches. I tell my people right up front. If you got a problem. I need to know about it. If you make a mistake. I want to know about it before somebody else knows about it because if I have to hear it through somebody else. There's going to be a problem there. Tell me what you need. It's what I always say.

Shelly Irwin: Is that what you look for in your leaders.

Deb Atwood: Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm a communicator and being with the deaf community has really even amplified that more. Let's talk about this. Let's get it out in the open.

Shelly Irwin: Back to motivation. A new couple finds out that their child is deaf, what your motivation to live a full life.

Deb Atwood: Well, what we say is we are on the fence on that. You know, some people want to go to the CI implant and that's fine. Some people want to try hearing aids. That's fine, too. It's a hard decision. It really is a hard decision in us back to where is your comfort zone. What do you want to do? But don't think that you have to fix that child. There's enough going on in the world right now that we can help them one way or the other. Some communities think that if a child is born deaf, that's the way that God made them, and they should learn ASL. So, we're there. We just walk beside them giving as much information as possible have a shoulder that they cry and somebody they can yell at somebody they can say, oh, my God, what do I do? We're there for them

Shelly Irwin: voting and gardening how do these work in your life?

Deb Atwood: haha. Well, probably my parents passed away back in. I think it was 97,98 left my 3 brothers and I Just a little pot of money. And so, we wanted my husband and I want to do something didn’t want to pay off bills, in the summertime. My family and I we grew up an aunt and uncle’s cottage on a lake. It's what we're used to. So wonderful the way it is So my husband, I thought that would be great to do so. We bought some property up in big Rapids outside of big rapids and we built a house there now and we commute every day and absolutely love it. That's where we're going to retire. And the gardening part. I like to get my hands in the dirt. I don't think about it. I love to mow I'm mow my own grass. Nobody else does it for me.

Shelly Irwin: Do you think about your day job when your recreation is happening. Are you able to separate, or should you?

Deb Atwood: That is a hard one. I can at times. That's why I love my grandchildren. I you know, my little swans are 3, 5, I love the Littles because so much attention has to be paid to them that you can forget all those other things and it's hard. It's hard not to think about what's going on.

Shelly Irwin: Should your grand kids learn to signed.

Deb Atwood: Absolutely.

Shelly Irwin: oh, tell me more

Deb Atwood: and they learned that right away. Many studies have been done with babies when they grow up, they aren't able to form. Those words yet so they learn things like eat. Please. Thank you. Mom dad. Milk, eat is very important. Play get those hand motions going get those Cognitive, you know, cells up there moving. Absolutely.

Shelly Irwin: On behalf of your community. What other pet peeves are there out there that we should or shouldn't be doing

Deb Atwood: providing interpreters. Think about it. You're watching TV. They're somebody on there that, you know, the governor who else is on. There may be the close caption is not working and you don't know what's going on in the world. How are these people supposed to find out state of Michigan has between 8 to 13% deaf, deaf blind or hard of hearing? It's a wide range. So, we're talking, you know what, 700,000 – 800,000 people in the state of Michigan. So, a lot of people shelley and they need that assistance. They need to know. They need the education

Shelly Irwin: back to volunteering. It's how you got to where you are now. How does again a young woman choose what she wants to volunteer for them.

Deb Atwood: I would try several different things and are so many organizations out there right now that you can go to, I would try as many as possible and see where your niches see where you feel comfortable if you're not comfortable for kids, don't do it. If you think that you'd want to work with, you know, autistic community definitely give it a try but try it first. Just because you go, oh, that looks like fun. So, a lot of work involved in it. But I would try many, many different things and then you will know you will know in your heart when you find where you need to be and who needs you.

Shelly Irwin: what continues to be the big dream.

Deb Atwood: Well, with our move over to special Olympics of Michigan. We are really hoping that that location will be a home for our community that they can come, and they can go walking. They can have cooking classes. They could have volleyball teams. They can get together as a community in large groups because there's enough room that can still separate. They can wear their mask and that they can be a community.

Shelly Irwin: What about the Deb Atwood dream

Deb Atwood: The Deb Atwood dream. I would absolutely love that we could totally put our advocacy program out of business that nobody would need help anymore that people would supply interpreters when they need to that. People wouldn't take the deaf, deaf blind, hard of hearing take advantage of them.

Shelly Irwin: But if you're out of a job, what would you do Monday morning

Deb Atwood: interpreter for referrals. So, we be putting those interpreters where they need to be.

Shelly Irwin: It's obvious this is in your blood. Yeah. Yeah. You have personal motto or any resources for us to be a Deb Atwood

Deb Atwood: help the next one up. I mean, all of us have education. All of us have experience

and we have knowledge. We need to pass that on not just keep it inside the pass it on helps the next one up, help them understand

Shelly Irwin: Deb Atwood thank you for this conversation and motivation.

Deb Atwood: You are wonderful. Shelley, thank you for having me.

Shelly Irwin: Another edition of powerful women. Let's talk. Thanks for listening and watching.

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Outro: Produced by women about women these powerful podcast focus on powerful women in how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more powerful women. Let's talk get additional interviews at WGVU dot org or wherever you get your podcast, please rate and subscribe powerful women. Let's talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer public broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University, the views and opinions expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU. Its underwriters are Grand Valley State University. [MUSIC]

Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The WGVU Morning Show, a newsmagazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. features a wide variety of local and national newsmakers, plus special features.
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