ALO Cultural Foundation: So Lebanon May Hear
By Kathy Chin Leong

VolunteerJan13-1.jpg"Beep, beep, beep. Beep, beep, beep." The volunteer repeats these words like a mantra behind a fidgety Lebanese boy who is being outfitted with his first hearing aid. Seated on a stool, the child peers left and right, studying his surroundings, oblivious to the fact that anyone has said anything.

"I'll turn it higher." Making sure the device hangs comfortably around the outside of the boy's ear and the rubber mounting fits snugly inside, he adjusts the dial to increase volume. "Beep! Beep! Beep!" He speaks firmly, distinctively. This time, the impish lad grins, turns and locks eyes with his newfound friend. The volunteer is Dennis Van Vliet, a regional director from Starkey Laboratories Inc., a major developer of hearing aids. He, along with a dozen of other employees are representing the Starkey Hearing Foundation, the philanthropy arm the Eden Prairie, Minn. corporation. "There, you can see it," says an excited Van Vliet. "You can see the hearing in his eyes."

Here in a city clinic in Beirut, Lebanon, Starkey volunteers, special needs teachers, parents, social workers, and members of the clergy have been united under one roof by Wafa Kanan, the founder of ALO Cultural Foundation, a Northridge, Calif. nonprofit group. ALO, which stands for achieving life's opportunities, is an organization with a vision to assist the underprivileged, domestically and internationally with a focus on Middle Eastern heritage. Kanan, who is a Lebanese entrepeneur, has spent months establishing coinciding dates so the Starkey Hearing Foundation, ALO, and the hearing impaired in Lebanon can make this happen. It is a major event with TV news crews, interviews with Kanan and hearing aid recipients, and more. She has set up this weekend and brought a crew of journalists with her to serve her nation's citizenry, many of whom live in six-person households earning less than $425 a month.

VolunteerJan13-4.jpgMonths earlier when Kanan called Father John Marie, the head of a Catholic deaf school, to help her get connections with other schools and contacts in the deaf community for this project, he was overjoyed. He had been praying specifically that someone would help his students get hearing aids. The mission, he told Kanan, was a mission from God.

Through special events and ongoing projects locally and abroad, Keenan's goal is to build stronger communities and cultural understanding. During this two-day mission, Keenan successfully brought the people of United States and Lebanon together for a common cause-to outfit nearly 1,000 Lebanese children and adults with hearing aids they would not be able to afford on their own. Approximately $900,000 in in-kind donations, transportation, and miscellaneous expenses was poured into this single project.

The majority of the recipients arrived by bus, riding longer than two hours, and some waited another two hours before they received the gift of hearing. Noha Nasser, a social worker, sat with rows of Palestinian refugee children who had been sitting for one hour, waiting their turn for a hearing aid. They were very well behaved by U.S. standards. Said Nasser, "Living in the camps, our children are used to waiting," she explained.

On this Saturday and Sunday, the clinic was empty of its regular crew, so that the ALO and Starkey folks could come to set up shop. The recipients came on different days: Muslims on Saturday, Christians on Tuesday, and they were scheduled at staggered intervals.

The children and older folks with names such as Sidar, Abraham, and Miriam were initially escorted to the sign-in station on the main level to verify their names and date of birth and addresses. Next, they migrated downstairs to recheck their custom hearing aid molds. At the third station, they received their hearing aids. At the fourth stop inside the clinic's theater, the recipients lined up on the stage to have the hearing aid fitted, adjusted, and tested against their own ability to hear. This was the moment when people broke into smiles and rejoiced as they begin to hear sounds and voices for themselves.

Before they left the building, they gathered at the final stop, and it is here where their names and birth dates were be recorded in a computer database and given the ALO Foundation card. Some of the Lebanese did not know their ages; a few children did not know when they were born. Nevertheless, according to Keenan, "The card will give them five years of hearing aid treatment and support for their hearing aids for free." She was emphatic that this card was essential, for if anything happened to the hearing devices, families could turn to the local clinic for assistance. The card, after five years, stressed Keenan, is renewable.

The final recipient after two, ten-hour days was an 18-month-old baby. The helpers and audiologists gathered around her with great enthusiasm. As Van Vliet explained, "The sooner you get a child some sense of hearing, the easier it is to integrate them into society." The cooperative toddler's eyes lit up, responding to the volunteer's "beep-beeps," and she beamed even more when she heard her mother telling her, "I love you."

VolunteerJan13-3.jpgAnd after the buses departed for the remote villages and outlying cities, Keenan and her staff remained, picking up the remnants of the day. They gingerly put away the ALO posters and signs so they could be used at another event, gathered the snacks and coffee reserved for the volunteers, and stacked the forms each recipient filled out earlier in the day. Everyone was exhausted, waiting to return to the hotel. Keenan, while weary, didn't miss a step. Turning to one of her staff members, she asked, "Is everything ready for tomorrow night? Did you call the family?"

She explained that there is a little boy, five-year-old Ali Fahker El Dine, with a detached retina who needed the foundation's help. ALO has been instrumental in securing passports and funding for the child and his father so they could go to Los Angeles for Ali's eye operation. The family was so grateful they invited Kanan and her volunteers for dinner at their apartment. Boarding the bus to return to the hotel, she was exhilarated. "I'll have to stop by the bakery," she announced, "to buy the family a gift." The kind benefactor did not stop to think that she would be giving this child one of the greatest gifts he will ever receive in his lifetime.


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