By the Rev. J. Richard Peck*
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti–– A three-member team led by Gil Hanke, top staff executive of the Commission on United Methodist Men, conducted hearing test on 415 children in three schools in this island nation.
During the Nov. 3-10 trip, the team members 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,” Hanke said. “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,” Hanke said.
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 (regional) Conference and Partners in Mission. It is supported by the National Association of Conference Presidents of United Methodist 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 United Methodist Committee on Relief, Volunteers in Mission, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and Haitian schools.
“Our primary focus was to return to the schools where we had worked in the past,” Hanke said. “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,” Hanke said.
“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,” Hanke said.
“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.”
Despite 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. The team 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,” Hanke said.
“Almost all these children have had a significant loss of hearing since birth,” Hanke said. “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 us at first bewildered, unsure of this new sensation, their eyes widen, and a smile lights up the area; they are transformed.”
One young boy entered the testing area, very shy, unsure of these strangers at his school. Hanke examined his ears, 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 United Methodist Church). 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
*Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference and communications coordinator for the Commission on United Methodist Men.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org