“So the World May Hear” is the mission for the Starkey Hearing Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Minnesota-based Starkey hearing aids company, the largest hearing aids manufacturer in the US. Each year, their Foundation staff, including Starkey CEO & his wife, travel 70% of the time (that’s ~250 days!) to deliver ~100,000 free hearing aids annually across five continents. This past weekend, thanks to a partnership with Global Health Corps (GHC), I was able to volunteer at a 2-day mission in Gulu, northern Uganda, where we distributed 400+ hearing aids. Since the Foundation doesn’t employ staff in the countries they work in, they rely on local volunteers to assist in everything from set-up, to ear cleaning, to counseling, and everything in between.
On Sunday, March 9th, sixteen GHC Ugandan-based fellows/alumni set off early morning from Kampala for a six hour journey north to Gulu; this was my first time in the North of the country. On the map below, you can see the route we took, which passes right by the biggest safari park in Uganda, Murchison Falls. That evening, we had a brief training prepping us for the next day and were awake bright and early Monday to get started…
When we arrived at the venue, there was already a crowd waiting that had been there since 2AM! Over the course of the first day, 211 people cleared through each of the stations: registration, ear screening/cleaning, fitting, counseling, battery distribution, and final fit. Though I was assigned to the data entry team and spent some of the day behind a computer entering patient information, I was able to observe and participate in some of the other stations as well. While entering data, I saw birthdays ranging from the 1920’s-2010’s, mild to profound hearing loss, and various causes for loss including illness (malaria, meningitis), drugs (quinine), trauma (bomb blasts), increased age, or just from birth.
The most incredible part of the day was watching people, both young and old, hear for the very first time in their life. Emotions ranged from shy to scared to happy, with a spark lighting in each of their faces. Many of the patients, never having heard before, had not developed speech. Though translators were used extensively at all stations (usually for guardians), it was amazing how little verbal communication was needed to help find the right power level for each person’s hearing aid, just based on facial expressions and hand gestures. A child hearing their mother say their name for the first time. A woman excitedly exclaiming that now she wouldn’t be fired because of her hearing loss. A smiling boy bopping his head to music for the first time. There were so many of these powerful moments.
On the second day, about 200 additional patients were treated, joined by several NFL players and Forest Whitaker, who were there in partnership with Pros For Africa and Hope North, respectively. Making the weekend even more meaningful, the distribution took place at St. Monica’s Tailoring Center, run by Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe. Sister Rosemary won the 2007 CNN Hero of the Year Award for her 30 years of work helping victims of the Sudanese Civil War and those seeking refuge from Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony, and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Sister Rosemary has plans to travel to the US again this year where she will receive a UN Woman of the Year award. Newly debuted, she stars in documentary “Sewing Hope,” narrated by Forest Whitaker, which depicts the horror she lived through caused by the LRA and her work to restore hope and dignity to those affected. Below are a few shots of her and the children at the school who were thoroughly excited by all the new faces around.
*Side note: Forest Whitaker won an Academy Award for Best Actor in his role as Idi Amin (ex-Ugandan dictator) in the 2006 movie, The Last King of Scotland. He supports Hope North, a vocational center and school in northern Uganda for orphans and former child soldiers of the civil war.*
As if this was not enough, I even had the opportunity to visit Invisible Children’s offices, a nonprofit known for their work in advocacy and mobilization against the LRA. You’ve probably heard of their short film “Kony 2012,” which went viral and sparked controversy just over two years ago. We also popped by their handbag workshop, Mend, which employs and provides personal development to 22 seamstresses directly affected by LRA conflict. Here’s a short video about Grace, one of the seamstresses that I met, describing her story and how IC has made a difference in her life. Check out their handmade products here on the online shop – they’re beautiful! Big shout out to my friend, Erin, who used to work for IC and arranged the visits.
After two full days of work, we arrived back in Kampala at 3:00AM on Wednesday morning. It was such an inspirational few days and an excellent reminder to be thankful… thankful for what you have and thankful for amazing people and organizations improving lives in their communities. When working in international development, having an opportunity to witness positive impact that you work for and hope is being made, can sometimes be rare. But what I saw in Gulu was proof that with dedication and passion, you can make a real difference in lives… and so many people are already doing just that.
Even though there is so much more work to do, as a global community…
“Today I am reminded that there is good in the world.” Kobi Yamada