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Philanthropist Bill Austin Travels World with Gift of Hearing

The head of a leading U.S. hearing aid company, Bill Austin has made custom-fitted hearing aids for U.S presidents, including Ronald Reagan, and a host of rock stars, actors, and other celebrities. But he says his greatest satisfaction comes from seeing the faces of children who can hear their own voices for the first time. "Hearing is a birthright," Austin says. "It helps us be all we can be for our families and our world. And it helps these people meet the challenges of life."

The Starkey Hearing Foundation, a charity Austin founded in 1973, makes over 150 international trips each year to customize hearing aids for children and adults. Austin personally takes part in at least 20 of the missions.

The passion to help started early, when he was attending medical school. But he wanted to make an impact, and wondered if life as a small-town doctor was the best way to do that. He thought that maybe over a lifetime he could have an impact on a small community. "And I envisioned that I might end up in Litchfield, Minnesota, dying of old age and they would say, he was a nice old doctor. He helped our town."

But Austin wanted to have a greater impact. So he changed course and turned a part-time job at a hearing aid repair shop into a successful career. "I saw the leverage of business, and decided I could make a greater contribution in business by getting people to work together in teams. And I felt that by doing that, I could impact the world.

Austin recently went to Turkey, where he and his team of audiologists provided 2000 hearing aids for the needy.

They also visited Malawi, helping families that were mired in poverty. He says some ate field mice, and small wild birds. "They take off the feathers and the head. They eat the mice fur and all. So they're very poor," Austin says. "If they're going anywhere, most of the people are walking. Only a tiny percentage has some kind of transportation. Most of the people can't afford fuel. And they would get up in the morning at 12, 1 o'clock and walk 30 miles (about 50 kilometers) to get to where we were to have hearing help."

The World Health Organization says nearly 280 million people around the world suffer from moderate to severe hearing loss. Two-thirds of them are in developing countries, and the organization says most would benefit from hearing aids.

Austin says hearing loss is a problem in both the industrial world and developing nations, for different reasons. "As a country becomes more progressed, it has better medicine, people are wealthier, so they buy things that destroy their hearing, whether it's recreational toys and vehicles or whether it's the iPods with the buds (small earphones) in their ears, they find a way to cause hearing loss by noise," he says. But in developing nations, where many people "can't afford the noisy stuff," Austin says hearing loss is caused by disease.

Austin recently visited two homes for the disabled in Panama, and says he was deeply moved by the smiles and hugs of those who regained their hearing. "And when these children and parents say 'God bless you,' I always reply and say, 'God has already blessed me. He sent you. You're my blessing because you give me purpose in life and you give my life value. I'm able to help you, and that makes me important.'"

He says through the Starkey Hearing Foundation, he has found the joy of giving, and shared the joy with others who volunteer their time and contribute financially to the charity. "It's a wonderful experience, and once you introduce people to it, it's addictive," Austin says. "They get hooked on it. And I just want to get people hooked." Laughing, he adds, "I'm like a drug dealer on the street, and what I'm selling is the joy of giving back to life out of respect, and the sheer value and reward that's in that."

The Starkey Hearing Foundation has donated more than 150,000 hearing aids to children and adults around the world. Austin says future missions will take his team to Romania, Nepal, Mozambique, South Africa, Malawi, Vietnam, and many other countries.

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