Hearing Missions Reconnects People

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Wanda Drahos sits quietly in her chair while Dr. Megan Annis sets her hearing aids and her family watches with anticipation.

“They’re turned on. Can you tell?” asks Annis.

“Yes,” Drahos replies, but the word is unnecessary. Her tear-filled eyes say it all. The two hug and the tears quickly spread to the rest of the family.

Drahos was one of 33 patients to receive free hearing aids Dec. 8 during the Hearing Missions Foundation’s annual mission at Fellows Riverside Gardens in Youngstown. It was the eighth year for the philanthropic event.

“It’s like I got my life back. I could hear my kids and my family talking.” Drahos says. “It’s just amazing.”

Drahos had been suffering from hearing loss for three years, she says. As it worsened, she became more isolated and disconnected from her family. She learned of the Hearing Missions Foundation from her daughter, Kelly, who saw a news story about the nonprofit giving away hearing aids.

“We thought, ‘That would be great for mom,’ because we don’t have the extra $12,000 for the hearing aids,” Kelly says. “She has two grandsons, so she’s going to be able to hear them. My little brother loves to sing so she’s going to be able to hear that.”

For Drahos, the hearing aids are life-changing.

“Megan and the other doctors, they’re like family now,” Drahos says.

Dr. Sheryl Figliano, president of Centers for Hearing Care and co-founder of the Hearing Missions Foundation, says Drahos was like a lot of other patients when they met in November.

“She had really given up on being able to hear her family. She had lost connections with her grandchildren,” Figliano says. “The minute we put those hearing aids on her, she became a believer that there are people in this community that do good things.” 

Many of the doctors employed at the center donated their time at the mission alongside dozens of volunteers. 

Without the support of the community and the volunteers, the event would be impossible, says Fortunato Figliano, Sheryl’s husband and co-founder of the Hearing Missions Foundation. Audiologists from the Centers for Hearing Care worked to set and adjust the hearing aids and instructed recipients on how to use them.

“The volunteers are really what makes this happen,” he says.

In addition, four audiology doctoral students from Kent State University came to help. They joined 22 members of the Delta Zeta sorority at Youngstown State University, who made care packages for all the recipients. Another volunteer made fleece blankets for each recipient.

“We wanted to give the gift of hearing,” says Shannon Byrnes, a Delta Zeta member.

Jessica Morales, owner of Vierra’s Vision Photography in Youngstown, set up a photo background and gave each recipient a free family photo.

“What better way to spend my time than by capturing these beautiful memories for everyone?” Morales says. “I believe that we all take hearing for granted.”

In 1910, Helen Keller, who lost her sight and vision when she was an infant and became known worldwide for overcoming her disabilities, wrote, “The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness.

“Deafness is a much worse misfortune,” she continued. “For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus – the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”

Many people underestimate the negative impact hearing loss can have on a person’s life, Sheryl Figliano says. For some of her patients, being able to hear well is critical to them keeping their job. For others, particularly the elderly, being able to hear the TV or radio is their primary contact with the outside world. It’s also linked to dementia, she says.

“Hearing loss is an invisible handicap. We can’t look at someone and know they have a hearing loss,” she says. “When we become socially isolated because of hearing loss, we shut down.”

For Sasha Vazquez, another of the Hearing Missions Foundation’s recipients, having hearing aids means she isn’t constantly left out of conversations. Vazquez has suffered from hearing loss since she was a small child, she says.

“It’s very difficult not being able to be on the same page as somebody. Having to have them constantly repeat themselves,” she says. “Or people look at you like you’re stuck up or something because I can’t hear them.”

Dr. Danielle Hoenig adjusts the hearing aid the foundation gave Sasha Vazquez. 

Hearing loss also affects her ability to rear her son, Kayvon.

“She’s going to be able to hear her son now,” Figliano says. “Now she can hear [Kayvon] if he falls and cries in the next room or wakes up and has a bad dream. These are things we all take for granted.”

She’ll also be able to hear him when he’s up to no good.

“He’s saying, ‘Uh oh,’ ” says Vazquez as she looks at Kayvon and smiles.

The Hearing Missions Foundation registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2013, but its origins go back to 2009 when Sheryl Figliano went on a mission to deliver hearing aids in Guatemala.

The trip overseas became the first of many. After returning home from a mission in Dominica in 2012, Fortunato Figliano says an individual approached them with the idea to do a mission in Youngstown.

“It just stopped us in our tracks and made us think, ‘Why don’t we do that?’ ” he recalls.

Since 2012, Hearing Missions Foundation has given away more than 300 pairs of hearing aids to individuals in the community. Anyone who meets the financial requirements can be eligible, the Figlianos say. Potential recipients undergo a financial background check and have a consultation with the foundation before they’re accepted. They say many are people who earn more than the Medicaid minimum but don’t have health insurance.

“We forget that there are people that are truly struggling. They’re struggling to pay the electric bill and the gas bill,” Sheryl Figliano says.

Individuals who complete the background check are then fitted for their hearing aids, which are given out at the annual event. All funding for Hearing Missions Foundation comes from donations.

“We have change collectors at every office and people drop their change in them. We get a lot of money in those,” Sheryl Figliano says.

Hearing Missions Foundation
Dr. Sheryl Figliano hugs Wanda Drahos, a recipient of hearing aids, as Dr. Megan Annis and Kelly Drahos look on. 

And she says the foundation continues to do work overseas as well, and it goes to each country with a three-to-five-year plan.

“The worst thing you can do for an international mission is go in, give hearing aids and leave,” Fortunato Figliano says. “The hearing aids go bad, where do they go?”

To ensure the work doesn’t end when they go home, the foundation partners with local institutions in the countries its visits that provide support for the follow-up work. In Guatemala, the Hearing Missions partnered with the Committee for the Deaf and Blind, which employs technicians to fix the hearing aids and helps recipients when issues arise.

A few weeks ago, the Figlianos were in Washington to lobby Congress for improved access to hearing aids in the U.S.

“Right now it’s a very antiquated system,” Sheryl Figliano says.

Under current Medicare rules, a person seeking a hearing aid needs to first get a prescription from a physician before they can even visit with an audiologist.

On Nov. 14, the Figlianos joined 175 members of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology in the Capitol to lobby for the passage of the Medicare Audiologist Access and Services Act, which would amend the definition of “practitioner” in the Medicare statute to include audiologists.

 “The day after we left, 45 representative signed the bill,” she says. “So it did a lot of good.”

The bill has bipartisan support from 55 co-sponsors but has yet to be taken up in the House of Representatives. Figliano would like to see that happen soon since the right to hear is just as important as any other right humans enjoy.

“Putting a hearing aid on someone seems so simple but it’s truly connecting these people back with their families.”

How You Can Help

Members of the community can support the Hearing Missions Foundation by making a monetary donation or volunteering their time. Single or monthly donations can be made online at HearingMissions.org.

The Hearing Missions Foundation also accepts used and nonworking hearing aids, which can be repaired or repurposed and given to those in need.

Those interested in volunteering to help with planning, fundraising or events can fill out a form here.

According to the foundation website, it’s looking for “a few additional talented and conscientious volunteer board members to lead and strengthen our missions locally and internationally. If you feel you align with our mission and can contribute your time, thoughtfulness, and leadership, contact us to find out whether this volunteer opportunity is right for you.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.