Giving the Gift of Hearing

ABC News
Beyond The Headline

In the shadow of Angkor Wat, Cambodia and some of the oldest temples on earth — the sounds of a modern-day gift.

Hundreds have come here, the very young and the very old — all of them deaf, or nearly so — looking for a miracle.

On a makeshift stage, a team of Americans led by Bill and Tani Austin have come here to prove that most aren't deaf at all, and they say 95 percent of the world’s so-called deaf are merely hearing impaired, but have no way to do anything about it.

"Let’s see if we can get her to respond," Tani Austin says, as she fits a 12-year-old girl with powerful hearing aids.

The girl's mother believes she is completely deaf. As her mother wipes away tears, the young girl can hear, and tries to speak for the first time in her entire life.

"Hearing is very emotional," Tani says, "It’s the road to the heart."

From the Buddhist monks of India to the Bronx, to New Orleans and the tribes of New Guinea, the Austins’ Starkey Hearing Foundation fitted 165,000 free hearing aids last year alone. After getting rich many times over running a hearing aid company, Bill’s mission now is to spend it by giving back. His goal: helping a million people hear by the year 2020.

"For me, a day here is better than any day on any beach anywhere in the world," Bill Austin says. "It’s better than any fine meal in Paris. I would stay here and not eat at all and work for these kids and go home tired and say I had a good day."

Soon there are others. Six-year-old Dennis slowly emerges from his cocoon of silence. Like a light switch finally turned on, in one day, more than 400 faces light up.

“You know what you’re seeing is hope. Mothers are the same all over the world," Tani says. "They want education for their children. They want safety in their homes. They’re hoping to have a better life for their child."

They all go home with a year’s worth of batteries and local contacts for help too, all of it no strings attached.

“It’s the best job ever," Tani says, as she starts to cry, "because it never gets old."