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Humanitarianism, Volunteerism, and Hearing Loss: Interview with Paige Stringer

Humanitarianism, Volunteerism, and Hearing Loss: Interview with Paige Stringer

December 08, 2010 Interviews

Douglas L. Beck, AuD, speaks with the Executive Director of the Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss, Paige Stringer, about being a humanitarian with a bilateral profound sensourineural hearing loss and more.

Academy:

Hi, Paige. Thanks for your time today.

Stringer:

Hi, Doug. Good to be with you and thanks for your interest in our work.

Academy: My pleasure! Would you tell us a little about your personal history and how you became the founder of the Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss?
Stringer:

Sure, Doug. Here's the abbreviated version.

I have a profound hearing loss in both ears from birth and I've worn hearing aids since I was identified at 11 months of age, while my family was living in England for a few years. When we returned to the United States, I attended a pre-school for deaf and hard of hearing children in the San Francisco Bay area, where teachers and professionals helped me develop spoken language and listening skills.

I was mainstreamed in kindergarten and attended neighborhood schools for the rest of my academic career. I was one of the top 100 junior tennis players in the country and earned a tennis scholarship to the University of Washington. After that, I earned a master's degree at the University of San Francisco and then enjoyed a 12-year-marketing career that included managerial positions at Amazon.com and the Clorox Company.

I am now a freelance marketing communications consultant and a published travel writer (www.paigestringer.com). In 2008, I was writing a magazine article about customized vacations in which the traveler collaborates with a tour company to design destinations and an itinerary that fits the traveler's objectives. Buffalo Tours was one of the tour companies I was researching and they offered a volunteer component to their customized vacations. Besides experiencing new places and people, one has an opportunity to give back to the communities visited. I really believe travel has the power to foster understanding and compassion between different cultures and volunteering in a local community as part of the travel experience enriches that potential. So a customized vacation, which included "voluntourism" was a great idea and got me thinking about the possibilities.

Academy:

Wow! Can you give me an example of the volunteer opportunities?

Stringer:

Sure. One involved counting tigers in the jungle, another was all about working in an orphanage, and a third was teaching English to deaf children in South Vietnam. The tour company didn't know I was hard of hearing so it was a bit ironic that of the hundreds of volunteer placements they offered, that teaching deaf children English would be one of them. The more I researched and began writing about the third option, the more compelled I was to take this trip and experience it for myself.

Academy: And so you went to Vietnam?
Stringer:

Yes. My experience there was the catalyst for me starting the Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss. The Thuan An Center for Disabled Children is the largest school for deaf children in the country, serving over 300 children from 3 to 20 years of age. They have early intervention and auditory-oral programs for their youngest members and they provide sign-language-based instruction for their older students.

So here you had a place where the range of communication modalities available to people who are deaf or hard of hearing were in full display. The center is run by an incredibly talented Vietnamese woman, Director Thuy Nguyen. Thuy was one of four women selected by the Vietnamese government to receive training in deaf education in Amsterdamin 1990. All four women returned to take leadership positions at university or academic settings to improve the quality of deaf education in Vietnam.

During my volunteer assignment, Thuy brought me to many strategic meetings and introduced me to various special education leaders. It was an incredible opportunity to learn about the landscape of Vietnam's deaf education and its successes and opportunity areas. For instance, Vietnam only offers an 8thgrade-level education at schools for the deaf. That means children who attend these schools have no opportunity for high school or college degrees, limiting their employment potential.

The country has an inclusive education policy, meaning they want to integrate children with hearing loss into mainstream classrooms. However, there are challenges to achieving that goal. Newborn hearing screening is not widely conducted. Children are identified with hearing loss late—usually around four to five years of age.

Audiology and speech therapy are still developing fields, so parents don't have easy access to information. Universities don't offer master's degrees in deaf education and many teachers of the deaf are not professionally trained. It was quite a contrast to my experience growing up with hearing loss in the United States.

Academy:

And you have a bilateral 100 dB hearing loss?

Stringer:

Yes, I am profoundly hard of hearing. In fact, the teachers at the Thuan An Center had never met an adult born with a hearing loss as significant as mine, who could speak and communicate through spoken words. The teachers politely asked me to take a hearing test. That was the first time in my life I was happy to have such a horrible audiogram! My hearing loss was on par or worse than many of the students they serve there.

Academy: I guess you "passed" the hearing test with flying colors?
Stringer:

Yes, and my hearing loss actually helped to demonstrate to them that children with hearing loss could learn language, learn to speak, and have a professional career. It was so nice for me personally to part of the "good news."

Academy:

I can imagine that for the children, you would quickly become a role model, while for the parents and teachers you underscored that education was the key to the success and accomplishments that are possible for all children.

Stringer:

Thank you, I was very happy to be part of such a positive and worthy experience. The teachers asked me to give a presentation about my personal experiences and what I knew about listening and spoken language teaching practices in the United States. I am not an auditory-verbal professional, so I was unqualified to speak to such a topic. However, I agreed to collect information from professionals I knew in the United States and relegate their expertise to the teachers.

The day I gave that presentation, about 30 teachers piled into a room and listened in rapt attention. It really struck me that these teachers were so hungry to learn, to find clues that they could use in their work with the children. Later that night, I stopped by Thuy's office on my way to the hotel. The image of her pouring over the handouts and reams of paper that my contacts in the United States had so generously provided to share with her became indelible in my mind. That was the moment when I decided that I had to find a way to help these teachers in their efforts to help young children who are deaf or hard of hearing develop spoken language skills and acquire education.

My time at Thuan An Center made me realize I could give back by lending my business background to help children who are deaf or hard of hearing in developing countries have access to at least some of the resources I was fortunate to have. I began researching deaf education in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and I was still in touch with Thuy. I asked her how I could help. To her credit, she could have asked me to raise funds and support for her school, and I certainly would have tried to do that. However, what she said was there was a terrific need for more and better trained teachers of the deaf in South Vietnam and better educational opportunities for teachers of the deaf in South Vietnam.

She suggested a multiyear teacher training program that would involve many schools for the deaf. The idea being that we would train teachers from the various schools and they would then be prepared to teach each other. The exponential effect of more and better trained teachers across the South would collectively elevate the education potential of the kids they serve.

The more I thought about it, the more I agreed. I also came to realize the need was so much broader than just teacher training. Children need hearing aids. There are gaps in hearing health care and follow-up support such as the need for audiologists and early intervention specialists in Vietnam and other developing countries as well. So, I started the Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss with the mission of helping children who are deaf or hard of hearing receive the education and resources they need for life success—no matter where they live. The organization was founded in April 2009 and received its not-for-profit designation in a few weeks and its first grant in June 2009.

Academy:

How many deaf-ed schools are there in South Vietnam?

Stringer:

There are about 50 deaf schools in South Vietnam, and 35 of them are engaged in our Vietnam Deaf Education Program.

Academy:

Tell me more about the foundation's Vietnam Deaf Education Program.

Stringer:

The Vietnamese deaf education community asked for more information about how to help young children with hearing loss develop listening and spoken language skills. Our Deaf Education Program is a multiyear collaboration between the Global Foundation, Thuan An Center, and Ho Chi Minh City University in Vietnam. It involves teacher training, mobile missions, and hearing aid distribution involving over 200 Vietnamese teachers and families. Our one-month teacher training initiatives are held at Thuan An Center every summer.

The Foundation has a team of 13 professionals who have designed a comprehensive curriculum covering audiology, speech pathology, early intervention, and auditory-verbal education. These professionals travel to Vietnam to teach the material to teachers who travel from the 35 schools to Thuan An Center where they board and attend the training. The initiative also includes a parent program so that parents can learn how to help their children with hearing loss develop language and acquire education.

Our Mobile Missions are conducted during the school year and reinforce the training from the summer. A smaller team of professionals travel to the 35 schools to provide in-classroom teaching support to teachers, consultations to parents, and audiology training. Our team also tests hearing and fits hearing aids on children who need them but whose families cannot afford them. Donations to our hearing aid program enable us to purchase hearing aids for distribution to children in need.

Academy:

And you've taken a few trips to Vietnam, and the next one is January 2011?

Stringer: Yes, we will be conducting our first Mobile Mission in January 2011 and I'm very much looking forward to it. We've got a great team in Judy Simser, Jane Madell, Charlotte Ducote, Joanne Restivo, and Lea Watson. We will be mentoring teachers in classrooms at four different schools in Vietnam. Oticon and Phonak donated hearing aids and a grant from Kopernik enabled us to purchase a supply of Solar Ear rechargeable hearing aids. We'll fit about 100 hearing aids on this mission. We also conduct a Saturday lecture in Ho Chi Minh City about language development and audiology best practices. ENT hospital staff, health-care professionals, teachers, families, and hearing aid distributors are scheduled to attend. I'll also be traveling to other countries in South East Asia to see what other needs there are and other opportunities we might become involved with.
Academy: I was reviewing the Web site and your blog and I liked the concise and forward-looking mission statement, "The Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss works to provide the world's deaf and hard of hearing children with access to the education and resources they need to achieve their full potential."
Stringer:

Yes, that's a pretty powerful statement. The Global Foundation's success is the result of a collective effort of talented and passionate people working on a volunteer basis to make this organization go. I can't say enough about them and their compassion. We have a terrific board of directors and advisors with years of experience in fields ranging from speech and hearing sciences, business, nonprofit management, and education.

We also have a talented and noteworthy group of volunteer professionals in speech-language pathology, audiology, deaf education, auditory-verbal therapy, early intervention and we're working with the group in Vietnam over the next three to five years to help train local teachers and professionals and to provide hearing aids for children that need them. We intend to take this model to other developing countries who have requested our support.

Academy:

That's fabulous, Paige. And what about funding? Where does the money come from?

Stringer:

We have received grants from Oticon, the University Lions Foundation of Seattle, AudMEd, and Apex Foundation for our efforts in Vietnam. We also have received donations from private donors. We are tremendously grateful to all of them for their generous contributions and belief in our mission. Without them, we could not do this work. I look forward to building on our relationships with NGOs and funding partners as we continue to grow and expand our programs and benefit even more people.

Academy:

I know the specific information regarding how to donate and where the money and other resources go are all available on the Web site.

Stringer:

Yes. We are currently a 100 percent volunteer-based organization. Every donation counts and makes a difference in the life of a child. For instance, $100 could buy a hearing aid for a child who cannot afford one. Two hundred dollars covers the cost of training one teacher in Vietnam about how to teach a child with hearing loss develop language. Five hundred dollars could help pay for translations and production of materials. So every dollar counts. I would like to encourage the readers to review the Web site and then contact me if there are any questions.

Academy:

Excellent, and for people seeking more information, your e-mail address is paige@childrenwithhearingloss.org. Paige, it's delightful speaking with you and I wish you and the Foundation all the best for the new year!

Stringer:

Thanks, Doug.

 

Paige Stringer is the executive director of the Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss.

Douglas L. Beck, AuD, Board Certified in Audiology, is the Web content editor for the American Academy of Audiology..

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