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US Philanthropist Helps Hearing-Impaired Children

A pioneer in the development of modern hearing aids is helping hearing-impaired children around the world. Mike O'Sullivan spoke with philanthropist William Austin of Starkey Laboratories, who has helped tens of thousands of children improve their hearing.

Mr. Austin started a hearing aid servicing company in 1967, and soon acquired Starkey Laboratories, which became a pioneer in creating custom-made hearing aids that fit inside the ear. Through his Starkey Hearing Foundation, he conducts 150 missions each year to help the hearing impaired in developing countries.

He recently partnered with members of the U.S. armed forces who are serving in Iraq to help Iraqi children who have hearing problems.

"We trained them how to take ear impressions, and we make the hearing aids and send them back and they fit them," he says. "We're having, of course, a little trouble getting volunteers to want to go to Iraq right now. They don't want to lose their heads. But these great servicemen that are there were just in awe of the fact that we would providing hearing aids. This big Marine was in tears because he thinks we're so nice giving hearing aids, and I said, you've got to be kidding. You're there serving our country and risking your life. And I mean, this is the least we can do is to help you help these children."

The foundation has helped children and adults in 170 countries. Teams take ear impressions, then make the hearing aids, returning a few months later to fit them on the patients.

Hearing, says Mr. Austin, is crucial to our ability to interact with people, especially in poor countries, which have few resources for the physically challenged.

The entrepreneur tells stories of lives transformed through the gift of hearing. In Juarez, Mexico, an elderly woman brought her grandson for a fitting, then stayed in the city instead of returning to her village.

"And she said she didn't do that because was afraid she would miss us, and she couldn't afford to miss us because she knew she was going to die soon," he adds. "And she knew her grandson wouldn't be able to take care of himself unless he could hear, and he had no other family. When we fit this child with hearing aids and he could hear so well, you should have seen the relief in the grandmother's face."

An upcoming mission will take the foundation team to Kiev, Ukraine.

"There's not one school that we're going to," says Mr. Austin. "There are 552 children in the school. There's not a hearing aid between any of these children, not one battery. Each of these children needs help. We're going to help each one of those children at that school, and there will be others in the community, and there are other schools."

Teams will visit Honduras, Guatemala, Antigua, El Salvador and Mexico.

Mr. Austin notes that his company reaps no financial benefit from this philanthropic work. The Starkey foundation typically helps in places where the people are too poor for a large hearing-aid market to develop. He says the charitable effort is a gesture of respect for the people of the world, especially the children.

"We're doing it for one reason, and it's because that person is worth it," adds Mr. Austin. "And any child who's diminished, diminishes our world."

He says this type of philanthropy is more common in private companies than in the corporate world.

"When you find a company that's privately owned, you often have a different commitment, a different grounding," he explains. "In publicly owned companies, they're always saying the bottom line is the shareholder return, and you're measured by those monthly, quarterly statements. What are your earnings, what are you doing? Our bottom line is service, and when you get into a privately held company, I think, the company owner realizes that."

Mr. Austin, now 62, says he could have retired 30 years ago, but keeps working to carry on the mission of his foundation.

The business owner says the United States is rich materially, but adds that in his view, it lacks spiritual direction. He says extending help to those in need in other parts of the world improves the lives of the recipients and enriches those who travel there to help them.