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November 26, 2003

Fixing broken ears - one ear at a time

From: The Star, Africa - Nov 26, 2003

By Jonathan Ancer

"Whoo, hooo, whoooah, WHOO," a wide-eyed, 9-year-old Thembi Mokoena shrieked joyfully yesterday.

This was the first time that Thembi, from Witbank, heard her own voice - and she was experimenting with the new sounds.

She was one of the hearing-impaired children who came from around Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo to Wits University in Johannesburg this week to have hearing aids fitted.

As they heard for the first time, some children grinned, while others sobbed.

When Thembi woke up yesterday, her world was a silent place - she could hear noises only if they were as loud as rifle shots fired at close range.

But yesterday afternoon, for the first time, she heard people talking - and a whole new life opened up to her.

By tomorrow, about 500 children will have received the hearing aids, donated by Bill Austin, founder of the United States-based Starkey Hearing Foundation.

On Monday and Tuesday, Austin and his team fitted about 450 children in Cape Town with hearing aids, which cost up to R10 000 each and were specifically designed for each child.

The process started two years ago when Medifix, Starkey's agent in SA, and the Centre for Language and Hearing Impaired Children, affiliated to the speech therapy department at Wits, visited schools in search of young candidates.

"We looked for the children who had fallen through the cracks - kids who could not afford hearing aids or who had no access to facilities," explained Professor William McIntosh, head of ears, nose and throat surgery at Wits.

At Yingasani, a school for the deaf near Tzaneen, not a single child had a hearing aid.

Six-year-old Erika Dippenaar, from Middelburg, was 2 years old when she was diagnosed with a hearing disability.

The problem was that her mom, Wanda, could not afford hearing aids. Then Erika's grandparents raised the cash for the R13 000 device.

"Erika's life changed when she got the hearing aids. She said, 'Mommy, what's making that "tweet, tweet" sound'. "She'd never heard birds. I burst into tears," Dippenaar said.

Six months ago, Erika swam with the hearing aids and they were damaged.

Her mother could not afford to buy another pair - and Erika's world was once again reduced to silence. Then Dippenaar heard about the free hearing aids.

"When I woke Erika up, I told her that today she was going to get new ears. She was so happy."

Austin has donated about 100 000 hearing aids to children from most parts of the world.

"When you put a hearing aid on a child, and suddenly there's sound, it's like a light is switched on.

"I don't want to just take up space in this world. I want to make a difference.

"Our mission is to fix broken ears, one ear at a time," explained Austin.

©2003 The Star. All rights reserved.