The Jefferson Awards for Public Service looks for local unsung heroes who make the world a better place through volunteering and community service. Known as the “Nobel Prize for Public Se rvice,” the awards recognize ordinary people who do extraordinary things. RTV6 presents the Jefferson Awards to local volunteers and paid professionals, who go well beyond their expected duties and positively impact our communities.
There are more than 500,000 veterans in Indiana and for Don Hawkins, his life is all about helping those veterans and others who need him.
Hawkins devotes his time to connect people to the resources they need to get their lives back on track, but there's a lot more to him than meets the eye.
"I work with the Red Cross, American Legion, I was given the key to the city for some stuff we did a few years ago, this is a 50-year pin for Vietnam veterans," Hawkins explains as he points to all the pins on his veteran baseball cap. "I did some work for the Prosecutors office, city flag, I am part of the Marine Corps League, the Salvation Army, this is our homeless emblem, this is for what I got in Vietnam for being a gunner in a helicopter."
All of that is just the beginning of Hawkins' story. Born and raised in Indianapolis, Hawkins went to serve in Vietnam in November of 1966. That is where he spent his 21st birthday.
"I was everything from a gunner in helicopters, to working in the office, Chaplains assistants," says Hawkins. "I was one of the lucky ones, I got back in '68 so it was still the thing to do."
Hawkins explains when he got back to Indianapolis, he went back to the workforce. However, 20 years ago, he chose to serve again, this time at home.
"I ended up starting to help ex-offenders because I thought they needed help," says Hawkins. "I used to go into the prisons and teach classes and work with re-entry. And that led into working with homeless and we started a place where we fed homeless people on East Michigan Street for eight years."
That is when then-Mayor Ballard asked Hawkins to join the Mayor's Advisory Council for Veterans and he has been doing that ever since.
RTV6 stopped by one of the monthly meetings, where Hawkins connects dozens of local organizations together to serve one purpose, to help our local veterans and families.
"It is important to have someone like Don that reaches out to all the organizations and brings them together," states Gordon Smith, who serves on the Mayor's Advisory Council Veterans Court. "A lot of people tout the fact with what they have done, but he is kind of a silent angel if you will."
It is at these meetings where someone can really see how much the Indianapolis community relies on Don Hawkins.
"Don's efforts are probably one of the biggest efforts for Veterans affairs in the city," explains Matt Hall, the Director of Veteran Services for the City of Indianapolis. "He wakes up every morning, he works at it and he goes to bed thinking about it. He is a 24-7 type of veteran advocate here."
A lot of Hawkins work is coming together in a new project he started a year ago, in a downtown Indianapolis warehouse.
"We are putting together ministries to allow ministers to come to pick up some stuff to serve the homeless people," says Hawkins.
Hawkins has worked with a countless number of organizations to get everything someone would need to get a leg up on life: chips, cookies, crackers, hygiene products, reading glasses, blankets, sheets, pillowcases, sleeping bags, jackets, socks, shorts, underwear, and even stuffed animals.
"We don't have as many toys anymore but we got all kinds of stuffed animals," says Hawkins. "It was a big hit at Easter time, they came by and picked up all the ducks and bunnies."
The Vietnam Memorial in downtown Indianapolis holds memories for Hawkins, it is a place where is need to serve others started, in his service nearly fifty years ago.
"From '66 to all the way to '68," Hawkins says as he points to the names on the Vietnam War memorial. "So all of these people here were killed in Vietnam all the time I was over there. That is pretty hard to imagine, I feel like I am here for a reason, and helping people seems to be that reason, it seems to be what He wants me to be doing. It is remarkable to sit here, all these people are gone."
The names along the memorial's wall, Hawkins says are a motivator for him to do what he does now.
"Just last week, I guy came to my office and asked if I remembered him and he said, 'Picture me in brown.' And I said, 'Oh, from one of the prisons.' Eight years ago he came to one of our Bible study classes and he kept a brochure I put together," Hawkins says emotionally. "And it is things like that that really keep you going."
It is because of Don Hawkins' heart and selflessness to give his all to those who often get ignored, that RTV6 awards Don Hawkins the Jefferson Award.
"It is just pretty much a God thing, it is what I am supposed to be doing," says Hawkins. "The first fifty years of my life I just kind of come and gone and did as I please. And it's almost like God said, 'It is time Don you paid back.' And this part of my life I am paying back."
The Mayor's Advisory Council for Veterans helps Veterans secure the programs, services, and benefits they have earned, yet a lot of veterans do not know that these programs even exist for them. For more information go to www.veteranssupportcouncil.com.