It’s a hot, sticky day in the Dominican Republic and the clouds are rolling in. Hundreds of people have traveled to Santo Domingo for help because they can’t hear well. A crew of 50 people are here for them.
A big white tent is set up in the courtyard of a children’s museum. There are 16 transportable stations set up. Each one has all the supplies it needs: hearing aids, clippers, pens, medals and an eager volunteer.
Everyone on the mission has their own reason for being there. Many are Starkey Hearing Foundation staff members, some are audiology students and others are sponsors. Among the crowd are a documentary team, local media from the Dominican and the embedded media (me and my friend Rachael Kleinberger whose joined to help me with photos and translating).
The mission trips are the second phase of the Foundation’s three-part missions. First clients are prescreened; second they get fitted with new hearing aids and third, they’re taught how to care for their new hearing aids.
Before the group of volunteers and Starkey employees get to the mission site, the foundation’s co-founders, Bill and Tani Austin, along with their super team of staff members, are there setting up.
If you watch Bill Austin in his element, you’ll quickly see he’s the real deal. Talk with him for even two minutes and you’ll be inspired. Before the Gala, I met the charismatic man whose life passion is felt the world around.
Austin is so involved in the foundation’s work, his corner office in his Eden Prairie offices is more symbolic than practical. He’s never in it. That’s because he’s on the floor meeting patients, overseeing hearing tests, placing hearing aids and mentoring audiologists. On missions, he’s often the first one on site and the last to leave. I’m not sure he ate lunch the first two days, he was always found at the main table, personally checking each hearing aid and helping the hardest hearing patients.
Austin told me when he was going through medical school, he realized he could improve people’s lives through hearing. One in 10 Americans have hearing loss — and hearing loss affects 63 million kids worldwide. In 1984, Austin and his wife Tani founded the Starkey Hearing Foundation, calling it the best work they could do.
Austin knew his ambitious goal of connecting people back to their families and communities could not be done alone. He reached out for help and has an endless support system behind him. The Starkey Hearing Foundation has given away hearing aids in 110 countries. The work has inspired the involvement of politicians, movie stars and athletes.
As the mission gets underway, each of the patients are called into the fitting area one-by-one. Often times there is a language barrier, both verbal and through signing. Translators are in high demand. It didn’t take long for mission volunteers to realize Rachael is bilingual. She quickly took on double-duty, both taking pictures and helping give a voice to the clients.
The first day of the four days on the mission was filled with kids from near-by schools for the deaf. These children were filled with curiosity and joy. It was a pleasure to watch them run around and play among themselves. They were very interested in our cameras and loved seeing the pictures we were taking of them.
Once it was their turn to get fitted, the kids were usually cooperative and slightly hesitant. I can only imagine how scary it is to have a stranger, who speaks a different language start poking and prodding your ears. Volunteers start by giving them a little sticker, some make silly faces and other things to relax them.
Soon it’s time for the best part of fittings: testing the hearing aids. The little device is fit into the tube on a ear piece and as the fitter makes a repetitive sound (usually a ba-ba-ba-ba or clapping), slowly the volume is turned up. The repetitive sound helps the patient register what they’re hearing. Often times the kids would try to make the sound back at the adults. It’s especially fun when the children haven’t heard their own voice before. A few of the kids would babble on and on solely to hear their own voice. It left everyone in earshot smiling. What a simple thing to find enjoyment in!
As a fitter, you have to pay attention and look closely. Time and time again, Starkey’s employees remind the group to “watch the eyes.” The moment a sound is heard for someone who can’t hear, their eyes light up or dart over to where the sound is coming from. The volume is tweaked until it’s perfect. Then the tubes are clipped short, the happy patient is given a completion medal and they go off for counseling and extra batteries.
Not every case is easy or ends in tears of joy. Only the person receiving the hearing aids can tell the volunteers how they’re doing. Sometimes they’re not responsive when sharing where their hearing level is. A hand signal to turn volume up or down can be misunderstood. Other times, their hearing loss is so severe they’re sent to Bill, Tani or other team audiologists for advanced help.
Volunteers work quickly fitting patients. Most can be seen in less than 10 minutes. As the day continued, the Caribbean sun got hotter and the air got thicker. All of the sudden, an afternoon storm fell on us. Without missing a beat, the Starkey team rearranged work stations and all volunteers were moved under a tent to keep working. It was a very controlled chaos as everyone worked as one to keep going.
As the rain fell, a simple pleasure was discovered. A young man who was fitted with his first pair of hearing aids said he heard a static noise. He had never heard the rain before.
By late afternoon, Rachael and I had taken hundreds of pictures and shot all the video and interviews we needed for the day. With the line of people continuing to grow, we asked how we could help. We then got a crash course on fitting hearing aids.
The process is more rewarding than I imagined. Having covered Starkey events in the past, I knew helping out would come with a big payoff. Rachael and I worked together on patients in tandem. I felt a sense of pride as the first little boy we helped walked away, knowing he was given a huge advantage in life. We continued to help until the line ended. After watching hundreds of fittings, the expressions of happiness and joy never got old. Not once.
A woman came to my station on the second day of the mission. She was more reserved and I used the little bit of Spanish I knew to tell her I liked the red highlights in her hair. She smiled and relaxed. I started the fitting and within minutes, she was able to hear again. As I filled out her paperwork, she started crying. She told the Spanish translator with me, she hadn’t gone out in a year because she was embarrassed that she couldn’t hear well. The hearing aids mean she can once again confidently be with her family and friends. We hugged and she probably thanked me 10 times. The moment was very overwhelming.
I write this as we’re driving Santiago, our second city for the mission. It’s a three-hour drive by bus up a beautiful rural mountain side to the northern part of the country.
The stories from these first two days are endless. Every patient has their own special story. Couples have been reunited. Children have heard their mother’s voice for the first time. Parents can reconnect with their children. One volunteer told me she and her husband helped restore hearing to a 105-year-old woman, who was so happy, they all got up and danced together.
By the end of our time in Santo Domingo, more than a thousand people were given the gift of hearing. The gift isn’t solely for them. Austin once told me 85 percent of what a child learns is through their ears. The trickle-down effect from helping that child is endless. They’re able to get an education, interact with others and reconnect with their family. It gives them a chance to get a job, provide for their families and be an active member in their community.
Starkey’s team put in at least 14 hours of mission work in two days. While it’s physically draining, and at times challenging, everyone, including myself, would agree it’s extremely rewarding work.
We’ve put together a slideshow so you can see some of the images from the first phase of the Dominican Republic mission.
Now, onto the next city!