It wasn’t until Kelly McAlister Jenkins ’97 got to know the other parents at the Atlanta Speech School that she felt something gripping at her heart, telling her she had to effect change.
Jenkins went through Davidson with hearing loss, sitting in the front of classes but not making a big deal of it. Her daughter, now eight years old, was diagnosed with genetic, progressive hearing loss at the age of one. Fortunately, Jenkins and her husband, Simms, were able to purchase the $6,000 hearing aids for Sloane, who was quickly transitioned to a mainstream classroom at just two years old and today reads above grade level. She has every benefit, but many families face more challenging financial circumstances.
“Ninety percent of the deaf or hard of hearing Atlanta Speech School students were on financial aid,” said Jenkins. “It was heartbreaking to see parents – many single moms – driving two hours so their child could attend a special program for the deaf or mortgaging homes to pay for hearing aids. Some could only buy one when they really needed two.”
Jenkins and her friend Sara Kogon sprang into action, founding the advocacy group Let Georgia Hear and writing a bill that would require private insurance companies to cover the cost of hearing aids for children. They had no lobbyist and no funding, and they were told many times that there was no way they could get this legislation through.
“Sara and I are your typical Type-A business people,” said Jenkins. “We had to do a great deal of research and figure out how other states were getting this legislation passed. We had to build a financial case to illustrate how much this legislation would cost and how much it would save the state of Georgia. We learned the ropes, quite literally, as we stood outside the ropes of chambers lobbying at the Georgia State Capitol.”
Georgia state representative Edward Lindsey, a 1981 Davidson graduate, said he always loves meeting Davidson people, and he was impressed with the way the bill was written. He agreed to sponsor it right off the bat. After countless hours waiting outside legislators’ offices before rushing to the carpool pick-up line, meeting with 75 senators and 150 representatives, Jenkins and Kogon finally found success, and the bill was passed almost unanimously.
Jenkins told her husband she would work on the legislation for five years, and it was five years to the day when the bill went through. Twenty states passed similar legislation before Georgia, and now Kelly has founded Let America Hear and gives advice to other states going through the same process. Similar bills have been proposed in eight additional states and are currently under consideration.
“We knew we wanted to get this done, but we wanted to do it in a kinder way,” said Jenkins. “People who were initially against us eventually allowed the bill to go through. They liked us. When we lost battles, we followed up with a thank you. That wasn’t what these folks were used to.”
However, Jenkins’ work isn’t done yet. She recently wrote a grant that was approved for mobile audiology units that will provide services to deaf children in rural areas in Georgia.
“Only two percent of students in deaf education in our state can read on grade level by third grade,” said Jenkins. “Deaf kids can do anything hearing kids can do – the issue is lack of access.”
Jenkins was “all in” for Davidson from the moment she walked on campus, and she applied early decision. She says the most valuable things she learned as a student were how to research and how to write.
“Throughout our work to get this bill passed, I kept getting feedback that the writing and the way I could condense research really helped move things along,” she said. “Davidson taught me that it’s ok to fail and to embrace failure. Even though I was scared and unqualified, I had a passion, and I saw something I thought was unjust. It fueled me. It fuels me still.”
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