A lot of people talk about the value of each and every person. And then there’s Bill Austin. As I write, I am in the Dominican Republic on a mission trip with Starkey Hearing Foundation, www.starkeyhearingfoundation.com.

Mission Fever is real. While I got vaccinated for typhoid and an Rx for “travelers diarrhea” I failed to get inoculated against the rush that comes with making a 106 year-old woman dance in her chair when she hears for the first time in years. Or the crush of relief when you finally get a squirming, irritated 2-year fitted with his hearing aids and you see him calm down and shyly smile. Or the affect of being with someone so single-mindedly passionate about his mission

Mr. Austin arrives each morning at the site before we do, the sponsors and volunteers who will be fitting hundreds of people with the gift of hearing. He sets up the long table on which the hearing aids are arranged according to power and left or right ear. Hearing aids every single one of which has been tested by Mr. Austin. Why? He wants every person to have the best fit possible. For you see, every person matters. Mind you, we are fitting 3100 people this week. And for each person we may have tested 6-10 aids to ensure we’ve got the right one for that person. And if an aid we’ve tested isn’t the best fit, we return it, not to the row of available aids but to a bowl in front of the row. Why? So Mr. Austin can test each one again before placing it in the correct row for one of 10 different powers. He simply will not have someone less than perfectly fitted.

Each morning, after he’s gotten everything set up and we arrive, we gather around and he shares a part of himself and his passion with us. This morning, he tells us that he is only here because of a civil war hero who plucked his 5-year old great grandfather from the woods after great granddad’s house burned down in the war, killing his whole family. This civil war hero ensured he was placed with a family who raised and cared for him. And when the hero died, he left great granddad with acreage which allowed Mr. Austin’s family to have a very successful farming operation which allowed his grandparents and parents opportunities which in turn allowed Mr. Austin to obtain an education and do the work he does today. Because of one person who cared for one person150+ years ago.

He asks us who we think has the most power to prevent a smallpox outbreak. Say what? Yes, he says, in a lab somewhere this eradicated virus is stored and in this age of malicious radicals, it’s conceivable that in the wrong hands, it could be unleashed in the world and wreak havoc. Who knows whether a person seated at our station at any given moment today, someone who may have never heard a sound before in his life, will become someone who cares about others or who wishes them evil. But if we look him in the eye, connect with him, convey to him that he is important and matters, perhaps he will convey that sense to others, one of whom may someday choose to care about lives rather than destroy them if given a choice. He could be someone’s hero and start a legacy that could result in the next Starkey Hearing Foundation!

Mr. Austin then tells us he wonders who cared for the civil war hero.

Okay, this is my second day of the mission and I’ve experienced many thrilling moments watching someone come alive with the gift of hearing. I keep tissues in my little tool apron because tears erupt regularly. But I didn’t expect to have tears running down my cheeks before seeing my first patient. Scratch that, my first person. But while I read a lot of inspiring material, much of which says that every person we encounter has worth, it’s another thing to be with someone who really lives it in every fiber of his being.

Today, when we leave exhausted with our backs and feet screaming at us, Mr. Austin will remain to see after-care patients. Last night he joined us at dinner about 9pm, still in his work clothes. I’m told that he short-changes no one. Each is given the time it takes to convey that he or she is important and matters to him. Oh and then he addresses his or her hearing issues.

I want to live by what I think of as The Wi-Fi Principle. I am only one person and yet when someone is kind and caring to me, it matters to me. It feels wonderful actually. And I am then more inclined to be kind and caring to the people I encounter. So the one who was kind to me didn’t actually just affect one person, he or she affected those I encounter which in turn affects each person they encounter and on and on. We can all picture ourselves as Wi-Fi icons! How strong will your connection to another be today? How strong will mine be?

Thank you Mr. Austin. Thank you Starkey Hearing Foundation for the incredibly powerful opportunity to look into a person’s eyes and smile and give the gift of hearing. When I return to the states and go back to my own passionate work, I hope to apply this lesson in love reinforced for me in the Dominican Republic. How? What if we all actually looked every person we encounter in the eyes, smile directly at him or her, with the goal of conveying “You matter”? What sort of power would be unleashed in our sphere of influence if we all did that? Who knows what silent struggle might be ever so slightly softened for that person, for just that brief moment? I’m planning for my personal Wi-Fi meter to be vibrating off the dial because I suspect I’ll suffer from Mission Fever for a long time to come!

Happy Valentine’s Day,

Deborah

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