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Jackson’s gift to help children with hearing loss

Feb. 13, 2020, 8:47 AM

Joyce Jackson, right, established a fund in honor of her parents, Hazel and George Fellendorf, to support programs that benefit children with hearing loss.
Joyce Jackson, right, established a fund in honor of her parents, Hazel and George Fellendorf, to support programs that benefit children with hearing loss.

by Kelsey Herbers

Joyce Jackson has two simple plans for her newfound retirement: to stop diabetes and to advance organ donation. She will pursue these goals through volunteer leadership of two Northwest organizations.

Even following a 21-year-long career as president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Northwest Kidney Centers in Seattle, Washington, Jackson doesn’t see herself slowing down anytime soon. She enjoys staying busy — a trait she inherited from her parents.

“Whether you know it or not, by the time you reach a certain age, you realize you’ve become your parents,” said Jackson. “My parents were always active in volunteerism, and my dad was a nonprofit executive. They led a full life in retirement, and I see myself being the same way.”

But staying busy isn’t the only trait she inherited — she also gained a lifelong passion for helping children with hearing loss learn spoken language and listening skills, something her parents devoted their lives to.

In their names and honor, Jackson established the Hazel J. and George W. Fellendorf Childhood Deafness Fund at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center to support programs that benefit children with hearing loss. By supporting therapeutic intervention and research, the fund will advance efforts to help children with hearing loss reach their highest potential for a full and productive life.

Jackson’s interest in pediatric hearing loss was inspired by her sister, Linda, who was diagnosed with profound bilateral hearing loss at age 2, shortly before Jackson was born. Her parents quickly became dedicated to finding Linda the best educational opportunities to develop spoken language through oral training and residual hearing to help their daughter in becoming a happy, well-educated and productive member of society.

“It is fitting that this important gift is given and named in honor of Joyce’s parents, Hazel and George Fellendorf,” said Anne Marie Tharpe, PhD, chair of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences and associate director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center.

Joyce’s gift is in keeping with her family’s long history of interest in teaching young children who are deaf to listen and speak, thus opening the door for educational and social opportunities with normal hearing peers as well as those with hearing loss.

“Thanks to The Hazel J. and George W. Fellendorf Childhood Deafness Fund, our educational, research and clinical programs that serve those with childhood hearing loss will continue to thrive,” said Tharpe.

Following Linda’s diagnosis, George halted his career as an engineer and moved the family to Washington, D.C., where he became executive director of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a nonprofit that supports spoken language development for people with hearing loss.

Through her dad’s work and watching the challenges her sister faced growing up, Jackson became well-versed on pediatric hearing loss and decided to pursue the field in college.

“My entire childhood was influenced by the fact that I had a deaf sister,” said Jackson, noting not only the learning challenges Linda faced but the emotional and social road bumps she experienced in school.

“The biggest challenge I saw was how society treats you when you’re deaf and how you do or don’t fit in. That’s especially true when you go to schools with children with normal hearing, which is what my sister did. You can be ostracized, have trouble making friends or not understand what’s going on in the classroom.”

Technology for improving hearing loss in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Linda was in school, was limited. Hearing aids required a box that was worn on the chest, or rudimentary over-the-ear aids, making a person’s deafness visible to everyone they encountered, and cochlear implants didn’t yet exist.

Jackson’s parents recorded Linda’s high school classes and spent hours transcribing them so Linda could understand what was being presented.

“Today, there’s email, texting, phones and other ways to integrate with society. Technology has revolutionized communication options for deaf people,” said Jackson.

Jackson earned her undergraduate degree in hearing and speech from Pennsylvania State University. From there, she moved to Nashville to get her Master of Science in Audiology at Vanderbilt University, where she spent a year training in both the classroom and in practicum experiences at the Mama Lere Hearing School. The preschool, part of VUMC’s Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, teaches children who are deaf or hard of hearing speech, language and listening skills.

Following her 1977 graduation, she taught language development workshops around Tennessee and led screenings before joining Meharry Medical College as a pediatric audiologist, where she initiated a hearing loss screening program for newborns to improve early detection. From there, she moved to Seattle and pursued a second master’s degree in health care administration, eventually leading to her 21-year run as president and CEO of Northwest Kidney Centers.

Though her career led her away from the hearing and speech field, Jackson has continued to learn the effects of hearing loss on everyday life through an additional seven deaf relatives within her sister’s growing family.

When Jackson’s parents, who have since died, began aging, she decided to establish the fund as a way to honor their legacy, and Vanderbilt’s program was the ideal choice based on its reputation as a decades-long leader in audiology.

“I’m very proud that U.S. News & World Report rates Vanderbilt’s audiology program as the No. 1 program in the country. It has always been a highly respected program based on the patient care, teaching and research it provides, and that legacy continues today,” said Jackson.

The Mama Lere Hearing School is largely funded through philanthropic gifts and enrolls approximately 60 children annually.

In addition to speech, language and hearing services, the preschool staff and faculty support families of children with hearing loss through education, hearing technologies and spoken language options.

The program’s success recently led to an expansion of its toddler program, which now operates four full days per week at the request of parents.

“I hope this funding will advance the programs that are brought into the Mama Lere Hearing School,” said Jackson. “Donations are so important to support the special aspects of this impressive Vanderbilt program. Donations can make a huge difference.”

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