In December RCPD said goodbye to an esteemed colleague and friend, Donna Leahy, who dedicated twenty-five years to RCPD and to helping students at MSU who are deaf. Donna made an immense impact on two to three generations of students and staff, and we would be remiss if we did not thank her for all of her contributions to RCPD students over the years.
Donna discovered her passion for helping people who are hard of hearing when working towards her degree in vocational rehabilitation. She learned sign language while in the program and interacted with many people who were deaf, which ultimately lead to her decision to work with the deaf community.
In 1987, Donna began work at RCPD under the directorship of Judy Gentile as the first sign language interpreter at MSU. Initially, she worked both as a specialist for students who were hard of hearing and as an interpreter. As the population grew, the specialist and interpreter positions were split into two, and Donna engaged in interpreting full time.
Sign language interpreting involves going into students’ classrooms and ensuring that everything – lectures, materials provided, notes – are accessible to students through American Sign Language. The job at MSU entailed going on student field trips, field studies, and study abroad programs. Over the years, the job evolved as real-time captioning was introduced and opened doors for students who had been more limited in the past if they didn’t sign. Through her twenty-five years, Donna is thankful that she was able to interpret for “amazing classes, students, and professors”, and learned so much in the process of signing.
Interpreting gave Donna the chance to meet some famous people along the way. In 2001, she interpreted for poet Maya Angelou, who insisted on Donna and her team interpreter taking a bow with her. She interpreted for Bill Clinton when he came to MSU and also for the inauguration of current governor Rick Snyder. Donna says that she very much enjoyed “the famous people, and also the everyday class experience has been fascinating…I’ve really enjoyed it all.”
Donna thanks faculty, staff, and especially all of the students who are deaf. She feels that she “owes them a lot” because they allowed her to be in their classrooms, learning and having the experiences that she did while signing.
Donna Leahy and RCPD Director Michael Hudson at Donna's Retirement Reception December 2012.
There were many giving thanks to Donna as well at her retirement reception last semester, offering stories of gratitude for the difference Donna made in their lives. Friends, family, colleagues, and formers students offered accolades about Donna’s professionalism, commitment, and dedication to the disability community as they reminisced about what her work and friendship meant to them.
Former student Robyn Limberg-Child, the first deaf student ever admitted to the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine, spoke about transitioning from life as a hearing student to falling ill and losing her hearing – “when it happens, you struggle a little bit, and you look for help, and then you find people like Donna, and people like Donna are a blessing.”
“She’s an interpreter, a mentor, and a friend, and she works tirelessly for those of us who rely on her and she does it with grace, dignity, humor, and with that wonderful Donna smile.”
Donna received a surprise video from a former Education student for whom she had interpreted, Brenda Flanagan, who is now a 5th-grade teacher for a class of students who are deaf. Pointing to her class, Brenda told Donna, “this really is your legacy; this is how what you do allows me to do what I do… you were always there for me, you always beat me to class, you were there in a snowstorm when campus was closed…you always gave me 100%, even 1000%, and because of you I am here right now with my students.”
RCPD echoes these sentiments of thanks, and in the words of Director Michael Hudson: “As our first and longest-serving staff interpreter, Donna became the face of quality ASL interpreting at MSU. From the classroom to commencement and special events Donna's exemplary skills allowed many people to reach their dream of an MSU education. MSU and Team RCPD are honored that she shared her talents and passion for the field, her contributions will be remembered well into the future."