Over four days in late January, the Starkey Hearing Foundation created miracle after miracle, by giving the gift of hearing to hundreds of people, young and old, living in the Dominican Republic.
Starkey has been coming to the Dominican for 14 years, mostly in the capital Santo Domingo. The frequent trips are necessary because the humid, salty air affects hearing aids quicker than air in other places around the world.READ MORE: Emmett Till's Cousin Speaks In St. Paul, Marking What Would Be His 80th Birthday
The second half of the hearing mission brought the crew to Santiago, a vibrant city in the northern part of the island.
As volunteers arrive at City Hall, the mission’s site, the line for help is already out the door.
“We’ll do over 6,000 hearing aids total. That’s around 3,000 people on the island. We had 2,500 scheduled, but always have walk-ins,” said Tani Austin, the foundation’s co-founder. “You know, we don’t ever turn anyone away. If they find us, we try to serve them.”
A labor of love created 32 years ago by Bill and Tani Austin, the foundation crisscrosses the globe, offering around 165,000 free hearing devices each year to those in need.
This particular mission is the ideal model, heavily ran with community-based partnerships from start to finish.
“Before we even get to the Dominican Republic, we’re planning for the aftercare to make sure there’s sustainability to the work we’re doing,” said Brady Foreseth, Executive Director of Starkey Hearing Foundation.
The hearing missions are separated into three phases. First, local doctors, health groups and organizers find, screen and prepare patients for hearing aids.
Phase two is the missions themselves, where Starkey’s staff and volunteers fit them with hearing aids.
The third and final phase takes place after the group leaves, when local doctors and counselors help patients maintain their hearing aids.
Three years ago, the mayor of Santiago made an offer the Austins couldn’t refuse: sponsoring Starkey’s stop in his city. He covered transportation and lodging, as well as providing a mission site for the foundation.
In return, the group said it would help every person that came through the door, in addition to training local a local staff to assist in continuing care.
Stacy O’Brien is an audiology student in Starkey’s entrepreneur program. The hearing mission experience has taught her lessons she could never learn from a book, like when patients returned for help as the team packed up on the first night of the mission in Santo Domingo.
“Mr. Austin was there and me and a few others were there, and it was dark, there were no lights. We were fitting by cell phones and correcting problems,” said O’Brien. “Mr. Austin kept saying ‘No rush, she deserves our best.’ And we did, we took our time. It was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments.”READ MORE: Activist KG Wilson Visits Minneapolis Site Of Granddaughter's Deadly Shooting For 1st Time
Not everyone on the trip has a medical background or works for Starkey Hearing Technologies. Most are sponsors and on the trip with family members. However, one of volunteer has a World Series ring.
Baseball Hall of Famer and current Minnesota Twins coach Paul Molitor said he had an idea of what the mission would be like, but added that it’s much better in person.
His worries about properly fitting people who speak another language with hearing aids eased after successfully completing 50 to 60 a day with his wife Destini.
“I was surprised after doing it for a while, you get confident and feel like you know what you’re doing,” Molitor said. “You have to take pride in each and every person and make sure that they know at that moment they’re the most important person to you. And that them being given the gift of hearing is what is going to make your day.”
One by one, 500 times a day, lives were transformed. To give someone the gift of hearing is to see them blossom, proving that the true value for each hearing aid is worth more than their $600 price tag.
“It’s that little rush you get when they cut their eyes, when you actually see someone hear,” Austin said. “There’s not many things you can do when you can watch biology happen. But when you see that sound hit the brain, that’s addictive. You can’t get enough of it. It doesn’t matter how many times you do it. it’s always just the most beautiful thing that you ever get to experience.”
Reactions of happiness and gratitude are as varied as the people who are getting help.
“We’ve had everything from tears to laughing to exuberant dancing,” said Molitor. “We had a lady this morning who, I don’t know, was in her 90s and she got up and wanted to dance. So I embarrassed myself and tried to dance with her, but it was wonderful.”
Whether the celebration is large or small, a translator is no longer needed. There isn’t a language barrier. Gratitude and compassion are universal.
“All the people are just wonderful and so grateful and they say ‘thank you,’ and I’m saying thank you,” said O’Brien. “You’re getting so much more than you’re giving.”
During the four-day mission, never once did any smile or any celebration go unappreciated. The gift of hearing doesn’t transform just one life; it reconnects families, friends and communities.
While the mission came to an end, its lessons will live on.
“We’re only as good as our partners. It takes a team to do what we do. Alone you can only do so much, together you can change the world. That’s what we’re doing here in the Dominican Republic,” O’Brien said.
To enjoy more photos from the hearing mission’s time in Santiago, please visit our photo gallery.MORE NEWS: St. Paul Farmers Market Vendors Endure Dry Conditions