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Photo: Gil Hanke and one of the 415 Haitian children tested for hearing loss, and suitability for hearing aids.

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti–– A three-member team led by Gil Hanke, top staff executive of the General Commission on UM Men, conducted hearing test on 415 children in three schools in this island nation.

During the Nov. 3-10 trip, the team fit 30 children with hearing aids and they made ear mold impressions for 55 children who will receive hearing aids and batteries when a second team comes to Haiti in January.

Hanke has made 25 mission trips to Haiti, some of them with construction teams

A reluctant recruit

“My first trip was in 1988,” says Hanke. “I was invited to participate on a medical and construction team, but I thought I would be useless because I could not speak Creole. As it turned out I was able to use my training as a speech pathologist to work with deaf children in St. Vincent School in Port au Prince. “Since I knew sign language I found that I could be helpful to the only children who could understand me.”

The following four years, Hanke served on several other mission trips to Haiti where he spent most of his time on construction crews, but he also found time to work with children at the St. Vincent School.

Hope of Hearing

In 1992, he led a team of audiologists to test the hearing of Haitian children and supply them with hearing aids. In every year since, the speech pathologist has led a “Hope of Hearing” team to Haiti.

“We missed a couple of years because of political unrest in Haiti and the project was put on hold after the January, 2010 earthquake,” said Hanke.

He had also participated in 2010 and 2011 construction teams to repair damaged buildings, but this is the first time the Hope of Hearing team has returned since the earthquake.

Hope of Hearing works through the Texas Annual Conference and Partners in Mission; it is supported by the National Association of Conference Presidents of UM Men, Rotary Clubs, churches, and individuals. In-country housing and transportation was arranged by the Methodist Guest House in Haiti.

A difficult restart

Restarting the project required the coordinated efforts of the Methodist Church of Haiti, the UM Committee on Relief, UM Volunteers in Mission, the General Board of Global Ministries and Haitian schools.

“Our primary focus was to return to the schools where we had worked in the past” relates Hanke. “We also wanted to help schools that were not getting any assistance from other sources.”

Hanke told of a particular difficult experience with one school.

“A U.S. hearing aid company came to their school after the quake with a pop star, took lots of pictures, and did not test a child or fit a single hearing aid,” said Hanke.

“In previous trips this same company had provided hearing aids to the team in return for the thousand or more hearing aids they had collected. But just weeks before this trip, they declined to make a donation. In fact they wanted us to blow off the plans we had made, and test at another site, so they could come in later with another celebrity and fit those children for another photo op,” said Hanke.

“Dr. Ricardo Gautier, a team audiologist fluent in Haitian Creole, called the school and assured them that this was not another photo op, and that the team was not representing the same hearing aid company.”

Successful trip

In spite of the pre-trip obstacles, the trip ran perfectly. Testing was completed on 415 children in four days, at schools in Croix des Bouquets, St. Marc and Jacmel, and the team made a return visit to St. Vincent School. They did not conduct hearing tests at that Port au Prince school since it was receiving help from a team out of Canada.

St. Vincent officials helped Hanke contact that Canadian team and Hope of Hearing hopes to work in partnership with that group in the future.

The schools at Croix des Bouquets, Jacmel and Port au Prince were destroyed by the earthquake and are in the process of rebuilding. “The testing we did in Jacmel was under a mango tree, the coolest place we could find,” said Hanke.

Children respond

“Almost all these children have had a significant loss of hearing since birth,” said Hanke. “They have been tested before in a variety of ways and even if some minimal residual hearing was detected, there was little available to help them. So for some as soon as they sit down, they raise their hands repeatedly, even before any tone is introduced hoping to get help. Others sit with a frown expecting nothing, resigned that this is a waste of time. Then unexpectedly, they hear a tone. They look at t us at first bewildered, unsure of this new sensation, their eyes widen, and a smile lights up area; they are transformed.”

One young boy entered the testing area, very shy, unsure of these strangers at his school. Hanke examined his ears, Dr. Gautier did the testing, and Dr. Sally Muhlbach fit him with a hearing aid.

“He began to hear the noise of his classmates and a plane landing at the nearby airport,” recalled Hanke. “He smiled broadly, stood up straight and literally strutted back to the other students. He entered meek, but left a young man with a new value of himself; assured that his horizon was forever changed.”

Request from the Methodist Church of Haiti

The team met with the chairman of the Methodist Church of Haiti (similar to a bishop in the UMC). He asked them if they could provide hearing tests and intervention for children in schools run by the Haitian church.

“This restart of the Hope of Hearing did more than provide testing and hearing aids,” said Hanke. “The teachers and administrators of the schools saw the team as tangible evidence that they had not been forgotten. Many go on mission trips and promise to return; this trip and this team illustrated to these special places that even an earthquake and church red-tape cannot stop them from fulfilling their promise to return.”

Donated hearing aids of any kind and any condition or financial donations can be made to:

The Hope of Hearing

3644 Burwick Place

Antioch, TN 37013

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