Children’s hearing ministry restarted in Haiti

By J. Richard Peck, Special Contributor

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—A three-member team led by Gil Hanke, top staff executive of the General Commission on United Methodist Men, recently conducted hearing tests on 415 children in three schools in this island nation.

During the Nov. 3-10 trip, the team 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.

Dr. Sally Muhlbach and Dr. Ricardo Gautier test the hearing of Haitian school children. PHOTO BY GIL HANKE

A reluctant recruit

Mr. Hanke has made 25 mission trips to Haiti, some of them with construction teams.

“My first trip was in 1988,” says Mr. Hanke. “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, Mr. 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.

In 1992, he led a team of audiologists to test the hearing of Haitian children and supply them with hearing aids. In almost 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,” said Mr. Hanke.

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.

The team uses audiograms to test each child’s ability to hear pure tones. PHOTO BY GIL HANKE

Hope of Hearing works through the Texas Annual Conference and Partners in Mission; it is supported by the National Association of Conference Presidents of UM 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 UM Committee on Relief, UM Volunteers in Mission, the General Board of Global Ministries and Haitian schools.

“Our primary focus was to return to the schools where we had worked in the past” said Mr. Hanke. “We also wanted to help schools that were not getting any assistance from other sources.”

He told of a particular difficult experience with one school.

How to help
Donated funds and/or hearing aids of any kind and any condition can be sent to The Hope of Hearing, 3644 Burwick Place, Antioch, TN 37013.

“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,” Mr. 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. Dr. Ricardo Gauthier, 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.”

In spite of 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. They 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 Mr. Hanke contact that Canadian team and Hope of Hearing hopes to work in partnership with that group in the future.

When children with hearing loss learn that they can be helped, “their eyes widen, and a smile lights up the area; they are transformed,” says Mr. Hanke. PHOTO BY GIL HANKE

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,” said Mr. Hanke.

Children respond

“Almost all these children have had a significant loss of hearing since birth,” he 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. Mr. Hanke examined his ears, Dr. Gauthier 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 Mr. 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.”

The team met with the chairman of the Methodist Church of Haiti (similar to a bishop in the UMC). 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Conference. He now edits UM Men Magazine.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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