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Minnesota millionaire brings loud miracles to Panama

KSTP TV, Minneapolis
Updated: 02-28-2004 09:57:43 PM

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA – Jason Davis accompanied Starkey Laboratories owner Bill Austin on one of his many missions of mercy around the world, this time, to Panama.

Austin and a dozen volunteers from around the United States, have come to the Panamanian Special Education Institute to fit as many poor children as they can with hearing aids.

Despite the long hours of volunteer work on this trip, Austin is always full of energy.

"Whenever the kids are there I'm ready to go every time," he said.

What drives him?  “Just the opportunity to make a difference in their lives."

Today the volunteers from the  Starkey Hearing Foundation  are scheduled to see 200 children.    

Austin makes a prediction:  "They will go home hearing - absolutely!"        

These visitors from North America are known and loved here, getting an enthusiastic greeting when they arrive.  But the pleasure is Austin's.

"We are so honored that we can come and share our art, our ability that we have, to help people here. With those who need it the most."       

Bill Austin, a man who has been showered with honors from some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, the man who rubs shoulders with presidents and movie stars, is flattered by all this attention.  But he can't wait to see his waiting patients.

For efficiency, most of the children have had hearing tests, and molds made of the inside of their ears, too, so that hearing aid shells could be made quickly.  Austin takes the job of selecting appropriate hearing aids to fit inside the shells, for each child's ear.

"We tell how bad the hearing loss is by the vocabulary," he said. "It varies from child to child. Everyone is different. And all we can do is try to do our best for each one."

In just three days this Minnesota-based foundation, they will give more than 500 children in Panama the gift of hearing.

Accompanying Bill is his wife Tani, and a group of volunteers, largely made up of audiologists who fit and sell his company's hearing aids in the United States.

Tani Austin explained,  "These kids were in a village that was flooded during the time that the kids were being screened.  So they didn't make it in.  So we must make their ear molds on the spot. "  

After getting the soft putty pushed into each ear, the kids end up looking like little space aliens, with tiny antennae sticking up from their ears, to make it easy to pull out the putty after it hardens in a minute or so. 

Many of these kids are now only minutes away from hearing for the first time.  They have come from far and wide, most of them from desperately poor circumstances, and many of them from homes in rural areas. Some walked for five hours to get to a bus they rode into the clinic.

Five-year-old Julio Vergara is typical.  His father, Julio Sr., has no money.  He is unemployed and was too embarrassed to show us inside their house in a rural area outside Panama City. 

He says his oldest son was fine until he contracted bacterial meningitis.  A translator explained the boy had normal hearing until he was 2, when he got sick. 

Bill Austin looked at the hearing test results.  "Even though [his hearing level] is way down, if we get enough power to the ear, he's going to hear.  Just like turning on a light switch.  Life is going to be great again.  He'll talk to his brother."

Julio is among the most difficult of cases to help.  He is confused and frightened and completely unprepared when he hears sound normally for the first time in years.

"Julio!” called Austin.  Julio turned. “Hey, that's good!" Austin said.  Julio had heard Bill's voice, and now, he heard his own.

Everyone in his family takes turns saying words to him, to confirm that this five year old has rejoined the world of sound.

"Agua!" he repeats, the Spanish word for water.

This is not the only miracle taking place here in Panama on this day.  The room is full of them—a virtual smile factory! Austin said, “His mother just told me he has never smiled before.  They just saw him smile for the first time."

Many of these children are hearing their own voice for the first time, and their mothers' voices, too.

"Agua," one says to her child.

"Agua!" comes the girl's reply.

This charitable foundation's work is the only chance these children had to regain their hearing. Their families could never afford to buy this kind of help.  Digital hearing aids for both ears can run into the $5000 range, total.

A mother wanted the translator to tell the team how happy she was.  "This was her dream, for her son to be able to hear. So, she wants to thank everybody," she explained. "She says, 'thanks to God and to everybody here.  My son will be able to hear and be somebody in life now.'"

This is why celebrities from all over the world help Austin raise funds for the foundation, including an annual awards gala July 20th in the Twin Cities, headlined by Elton John at St. Paul's Rivercentre.

You can learn more about the The Starkey Hearing Foundation online: .  You can also contact them at:  The Starkey Hearing Foundation, 6700 Washington Avenue South, Eden Prairie, MN 55344.  Toll free: 800.769.2799. Fax: 952.828.6946.



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