For Westerville's Marlena "Lena" Smith, who is one of three American Sign Language interpreters regularly present at Gov. Mike DeWine's daily COVID-19 coronavirus press conferences, a passion for communicating with the deaf community began when she was a student at Westerville South High School.

Smith, 29, graduated from Westerville South in 2009 and went on to receive an associate degree in ASL interpreting from Columbus State Community College, a bachelor's degree in leadership with a concentration in ASL interpreting from Union Institute & University and a master's degree in creative writing from Goddard College.

"Being a graduate of a Westerville school is an integral part of my story," Smith said. "Anytime someone asks me about American Sign Language and how I started to learn, it would be a disservice not to mention WSHS," she said. "Westerville has one of the best ASL programs in the state."

Smith said Christine Raimonde Evenson, a 1971 Westerville South graduate, started the school's program around 1991.

"The program has continued to flourish since then," Smith said. "Westerville has a great reputation, and there have been a lot of incredible interpreters and people that fell in love with ASL, that first started learning ASL at a Westerville city school. I took three years at Westerville South, and I'm very proud, as well as lucky, to have done so."

Smith recalls Tiffany Clark Paulus, whom she describes as an "incredible teacher," who would sit with her every day after school, and they would talk about ASL and the deaf community and practice signing.

"I also had the wonderful Kelly Modlich as my ASL 1 and 3 teacher," Smith said. "She introduced me to ASL and I was fascinated."

"Westerville gave me a foundation to stand on so I could build my way up to working for the state."

Opportunities for Ohioans

Smith is employed as an ASL interpreter with Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, the state agency that empowers Ohioans with disabilities through employment, disability determinations and independence.

"Our role at OOD is to lead the way in carrying out Gov. DeWine's commitment to Ohioans with disabilities," said Kevin Miller, OOD director. "The interpreters are highly skilled professionals that facilitate communication between hearing individuals and deaf or hard-of-hearing Ohioans. Especially right now, they are a crucial communication tool."

Smith said she became an interpreter by accident.

"I went to Columbus State wanting to learn more language and to make friends," Smith said. "I really wanted to become more involved in the deaf community. Columbus State afforded me with that opportunity. When I graduated, I felt like I was a part of a family and they'd given me the confidence to finally say, 'I think I can do this.' "

Smith also went through an interpreting training program, in which she learned about language -- both American Sign Language and English -- as well as culture, theory and the profession that is interpreting.

Smith said she is motivated to do her work because everyone deserves access.

"The deaf community has given me so much," she said. "They have given me language, friends, family, acceptance, a job, love. It is my honor to be one of the interpreters."

Smith said her mother, Diane Smith, is a paraprofessional at Westerville South, and the father of one of her past students is deaf.

"So, I was exposed to a little sign language from their family as a child," Smith said.

She said her mother is her role model in life.

"She's an incredible, creative, giving, brilliant human," Smith said. "She is also currently making masks and various tools to support interpreters and the deaf community."

The "hot seat"

During DeWine's daily press conferences about the state's response to the coronavirus, Smith said, she works with colleagues Marla Berkowitz, who is deaf and a certified deaf interpreter, and Christy Horne, of Deaf Services Center in Worthington.

"We meet and do as much prep as possible before starting the press conference, and we also do a postconference," Smith said. "What's important to note is that we are working together as a team every step of the way."

She said the interpreters provide each other with information and a safety net.

"At all times, we have what is called a monitor," Smith said. "This individual is in charge of watching the interpreters in the 'hot seat' and confirms that they understood the information correctly. If that person misses something or misunderstands something, it is the monitor's job to correct it."

Smith said the person in the hot seat is the one who is actively listening, visually or auditorily to the message and then is creating an interpretation.

"So Christy and Marla are in the 'hot seat' while the governor, lieutenant governor (Jon Husted) and Dr. (Amy) Acton is speaking," she said. "Christy takes the information she hears and interprets it for Marla.

"Marla then takes the information and delivers it in a way that is digestible for a wide variety of people in the audience."

Smith said her role is to coordinate with the Ohio Statehouse, monitor the work being delivered and provide access to the tone of the speakers.

"When it is time for the Q&A, I interpret for the questions," Smith said. "Christy and Marla then take over the things that I was doing, including monitoring me. While Christy is doing that, she is also listening to the start of the answers and then holding all that information for Marla. Marla then rapidly takes in that information, processes it and, in my opinion, creates linguistic art."

Smith said one of her favorite aspects about the press conferences is the discussions she is involved in about language, interpreting and making the process better.

"We also get feedback from the deaf community," she said. "They share with us their signs for concepts, their ideas about how to make the press conference more accessible. We truly are all in this together."

Smith said her job as a staff interpreter is to provide access to the professionals she works with at OOD, as well as participants and guests.

"It is my honor to interpret for a variety of meetings that help serve the agency's goal, which is to help Ohioans with disabilities find and keep work," she said.

When she isn't on the job as an interpreter, she loves playing tennis, Smith said.

"I started the tennis program in Westerville for Special Olympics when I was in high school," she said. "I am very proud of Westerville Special Olympics and all the athletes. I know that this year it has been tough to see everything canceled, but we will be reunited."