Two missions to developing countries working in tents and open-air stadiums, seeing 600 people a day and helping put smiles on the faces of hearing-impaired children and teens have given Neil Aiello a new focus -- humanitarian aid.
Aiello, a Kennewick audiologist and the owner of Columbia Basin Hearing Center in Kennewick, fits hearing aids.
He came back from those missions determined to raise awareness about hearing loss, not just internationally but locally too.
He and his wife, Shannon, are organizing a 5K fun run, "A Celebration of Sound," on May 17. Proceeds will go to the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which travels the world fitting and donating hearing aids to those who can't afford them.
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Aiello donates a portion of each sale of a hearing aid from his business to the foundation. Starkey also has a domestic branch, which helps people in the United States who are hearing-impaired and can't afford hearing aids.
"Sadly there are too many people in our community -- usually a single elderly person, a widow or widower -- who need hearing aids. But because they are living month to month on Social Security, they simply can't afford them," Aiello said.
"Starkey provides the hearing aids, our office provides the equipment to correctly fit them, and our staff volunteers their time. But there's a $250 registration fee to apply for the free hearing aids," he said.
So Aiello established Hearing Angels, a program linked to Starkey. Donations help pay the registration fees.
"It's difficult to cope with a hearing loss. It can isolate a person from their environment. People living in these poor, poor countries have no way of learning sign language, no way to communicate with their families, the world," Aiello said.
In developing countries, many lose their hearing at an early age from inner ear bacterial infections. Left untreated, the liquid in the middle ear becomes acidic and dissolves the bones that allow us to hear.
"People in these countries are not able to afford to go to a doctor or the medicine to treat these infections," he said.
That's what Aiello saw on his trips as a Starkey volunteer to Mexico and again on his most recent mission in March to the poorest sections of Kenya and Rwanda in Africa.
"Seeing the look on their faces when they heard sounds for the first time, or the first time in many years, was priceless," Aiello said.
The May 17 fun run is scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m. at Howard Amon Park in Richland. There will be concerts by Tri-City area musicians before and after the event.
At 3 p.m., there will be a one-mile walk led by a marching band. There will also be booths with information promoting better hearing and the Starkey Hearing Foundation.
Proceeds from the fun run will go to Starkey. Cost to participate is $20 for adults and $5 for children.
For more information on the fun run, go to www.youcaring.com/mission-trip-fundraiser/a-celebration-of-sound/165676.
-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; email@example.com