It’s been close to 40 years, but Janet Hawkins still remembers the awful treatment she received after waiting in line one day at an Oregon social services office.
Hawkins was newly divorced, heading back to college and looking for assistance – and kindness – as she scraped to care for her 1-year-old daughter with relief programs and child support. The workers, she says, treated her like she’d done something wrong.
“Is there something wrong with me?” she says she remembers thinking. “I came to the conclusion that I’d done nothing wrong. I’d just come in and asked for some help. But that was a universal experience at that time. There was a lot of condemnation, and there still is.”
Hawkins finished her social work degree at the University of Oregon, thankful for the student housing and federal grants that made it possible. And as she forged a career in public service, she devoted herself to making sure no one else hoping for some help would ever have to feel the way she felt that day.
For nearly 20 years, Hawkins has served as the Department of County Human Services’ community action coordinator, supporting the county’s Commission on Children, Families and Community. That body ensures people experiencing poverty have a strong, direct voice in shaping the policies that affect their lives.
Hawkins’ tireless devotion to the commission has earned her this year’s HILLTOP Award for Public Service Lifetime Achievement. The award recognizes community members who’ve endured poverty in their own lives and then gone on to help others pursue their goals and attain self-sufficiency.
As the longtime heart of the commission, Hawkins dedicates herself to helping commission members make the most of their time volunteering – which can be a difficult commitment for people working to scrape by, care for their families and stabilize their lives.
Hearing those voices, engaging with them, Hawkins says, helps county officials ensure our programs are helping the people they’re meant to help, and as fully as they can. Participants counsel county workers directly. They also testify at board meetings.
Hawkins remembers a woman who spoke up during a meeting on services for children that were supposed to be available to anyone who asked. The woman gently pointed out that her family wasn’t, in fact, able to get in.
“People who are low-income are the experts on their existence,” Hawkins says. “That’s what we need to hear.”
Hawkins makes sure meetings are held later in the day, with food provided. She provides gift cards as a gesture of gratitude for participants who give up their precious time. She also arranges child care at the meetings and helps arrange transportation.
Years ago, she said, a participant asked her for a ride after a meeting. As they got in the car, she thought he’d direct her back to his apartment. Instead, they went to a storage unit where he could get his camping gear. He didn’t have a place to stay.
“He just sat through this bureaucratic meeting,” she says of the man, who’s since become housed, “and now he’s going to be camping on the streets tonight. Supporting this work is so important.”
The idea for the HILLTOP Awards themselves came from one of the volunteers Hawkins worked with. Hawkins helped run with the idea, giving the county another way to recognize people who’ve made a difference in the lives of neighbors in poverty.
“The county is listening,” she says. “A small group of people can make change.”