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Helping kids hear in Kabul

Mary Baumgarten, of Buffalo Lake, fits a girl in Kabul with a hearing aid. Contributed photo

Mary Baumgarten, of Buffalo Lake, fits a girl in Kabul with a hearing aid. Contributed photo

Mary Baumgarten, who lives in Buffalo Lake and is the executive director of Food for Kidz in Stewart, had a heart-warming experience in October when she traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, and participated in and fitted more than 850 children and adults with hearing aids to provide them the gift of hearing.

Her trip started two years ago when Ehsanollah and Fatema Laya Bayat, founders of the Bayat Foundation, visited Minnesota with the suggestion to Mary to connect with resources of other Minnesota organizations that could benefit their foundation’s efforts in Afghanistan. Food for Kidz helped facilitate the introductions to MatterMore (Hope for the City) and to the Starkey Foundation in Eden Prairie. “Because of my work for Food for Kidz around the world I am introduced to many organizations that do great work. I work diligently in connecting these organizations with others because I feel these resources and their benefits should be realized,” Baumgarten said.

The Bayat Foundation has worked with the Food for Kidz organization by distributing millions of meals to hospitals, schools and orphanages in Afghanistan for the past four years. The Bayat Group employs more than 6,000 people in Afghanistan.

Mr. Bayat escaped the Russians in Afghanistan and came to the United States with his family in 1980, when he was 17 years old. In 2002, after the United States went into Afghanistan and the embargo for doing business was lifted, he proceeded to build the cellular network in Afghanistan. Before he established the cell phone business, there were only 14 telephone lines that could take you out of the country. In a short period of time people had access to cell phone service. Now millions of Afghans have the ability to communicate. Almost instantly people had access to others in the country and to the outside world.

Both Ehsan and Fatima have tremendous respect for the Afghan people and are attempting to provide for the needs of the people and in the rebuilding of the economy of Afghanistan. The Bayat Foundation has a great passion for medical accessibility, so they have built 13 hospitals since 2002. They believe that education for all must be foremost in rebuilding lives, so schools were built and universities supported by the foundation. Humanitarian aid has been provided in all of the provinces and refugee camps. Their current campaigns are to provide clean, accessible water by digging wells and promoting the environmental cleanup of the Kabul river.

“Fatema is the director of their foundation, and I have met with her here in Minnesota and several times in Washington, D.C.,” Baumgarten said. “After 18 months the Starkey Foundation and the Bayat Foundation had it planned and strategized for the implementation of the process needed for Afghans to get all these hearing aids. A delegation of Starkey employees, audiologists, doctors and volunteers were going to make the trip to Afghanistan. The Bayats asked me if I wanted to make the trip as well and work in this environment. Of course, I realized the opportunity and was willing to be part of the process. I certainly appreciated the chance to participate in this great endeavor. It was an honor.

Impressions of the ears of Afghan children from two deaf schools in Kabul were made with silicone impressions then sent to Starkey in Eden Prairie for the customized molds for their ears to accommodate their hearing aids. In 1984, William F. Austin started the Starkey Foundation. The Starkey Foundation conducts hearing missions in the United States and around the globe to bring the gift of hearing to those who would otherwise live in the isolation of a silent world.

Mary’s trip consisted of four days of travel and working only three days in Afghanistan. Security was very tight because of the insecure situation in the country. “After working with people in Afghanistan for four years, I really wanted to meet people I had only talked to,” Baumgarten said. “Because the logistics and security of the mission was most important, I could not do that. I was not to have anybody come to the compound to meet me, and I was not to leave the compound. Actually, when leaving to return to the U.S., our trip to the Kabul airport consisted of four checkpoints before we ever got to the terminal. You had to get out of your car with your luggage, your luggage was scanned and your car was searched. There were two points of security, metal detectors, and everybody was frisked. If I had fully realized the extent of the security issues before I had gone . . . . . I still would have made the trip.”

Mary Baumgarten, of Buffalo Lake, made a seven-day trip to Afghanistan to help the hearing impaired. Photo contributed.

Mary Baumgarten, of Buffalo Lake, made a seven-day trip to Afghanistan to help the hearing impaired. Photo contributed.

The children were bused to the Bayat Media Center compound in Kabul where teams inspected and cleaned each child’s ears prior to being fit with their personalized hearing aids. “My job was to fit each ear with the appropriate strength of hearing aid and volume to match the needs of each ear. When we started fitting the hearing aids for the Afghan children, it was a four-way conversion. We had to work with the patient, a sign language interpreter who then communicated with the Afghan interpreter who then translated to us in English. At times, this proved to be very challenging but doable. The first step was to put a low frequency hearing aid at the end of the 5-inch tube and then start making a sound and keep turning that hearing aid up. If they couldn’t hear anything we put the next higher frequency on and then kept going up the ladder until they could hear. Then we would do the other ear. Because at times the hearing wasn’t the same in both ears, they had to make sure the hearing in both their ears were the same. Children who had never heard before were able to hear for the first time. The excitement in their eyes and surprised expressions on their faces when they heard their first sounds was very moving,” according to Baumgarten’s report on the Food For Kidz website.

Baumgarten recalls one little boy, who was 4 or 5 years old, being fitted with a hearing aid, and out of the clear blue she heard this loud giggling and a loud “Ba Ba Ba” sound. The boy giggled and giggled and giggled. This was the first time he had ever heard his own voice. He would go around loudly saying “Ba! Ba! Ba!,” giggle, giggle, giggle.

There was a group of girls who were classmates and friends who sat on a bench and would make sounds and giggle and then say something then giggle again. There was a water fountain in the center of the courtyard. The recipients would be walking across the courtyard to get their education about their hearing aid and batteries, and all of a sudden, they stopped in their tracks. They looked puzzled until they realized that what they were hearing was the sound of the fountain. They didn’t realize that there was a sound associated with a water fountain. “So I can’t imagine how the teachers will change their instruction for the 675 students at these two deaf schools. Now that they can hear, how will their lives change,” stated Baumgarten.

“We had over 300 Afghans as walk-in patients on the second day. These walk-ins were mothers with children, elderly, and teenage children. A mother brought her four children in and got hearing aids. They were deaf walking in, but all were assisted with hearing aids. The mother was in tears, her children showing huge smiles and all extremely grateful. How would their lives change, too? They just needed hearing aids. The expressions on the faces of teenage children who could hear music for the first time was priceless.

“One father brought his child back because he said his hearing aids weren’t working because he wouldn’t talk to his father. He didn’t realize, even though he was able to hear, he still had to learn the language.

“Another beautiful contribution by the Starkey Hearing Foundation is the program established to track all of those receiving hearing aids for years to come. Each recipient was given contact information in the event that they experience problems so solutions can be provided, repairs made, or hearing aids replaced. Batteries will be provided and accessible by a local source in the country or shipped when needed.

“All the team members who were working with the 850 children and adults were moved to see the joy and excitement for those who could hear music, laughter, and the voices of their loved ones for the first time. Needless to say, everyone was extremely grateful; the mother who could hear her child for the first time, the little boy who could now hear his voice and joyfully proclaimed to everyone, and the children amazed that the water fountain in the courtyard made noise! These are only a few of the examples of gratitude that we experienced. Many were silent, but the gesture of their hand over their hearts and the nod of their heads as a sign of respect spoke volumes.”

A large group waits in line to be fitted with hearing ads in Kabul.     Photo contributed.

A large group waits in line to be fitted with hearing ads in Kabul. Photo contributed.

The Starkey Foundation and Bayat Foundation plan on continuing their efforts each year. Baumgarten said it all depends where the situation in the country goes. “I hope to go too. There are so many things Food for Kidz is doing in Afghanistan even more than just this trip,” she said. “It is such an honor to be working there.”

While in Kabul, Baumgarten was able to visit a school with Mrs. Bayat. These children have been receiving the food from Food for Kidz, and the school superintendent spoke of the increased capacity of these children to learn and retain information because of the increased nutrition and protein from the meals. But it was heartbreaking to see the lack of resources this school had for their students: no desks, few books, paper, writing instruments, no chalk boards or white boards. While there, they were able to distribute songbooks and food, but much more was needed.

Background on Mary

Mary was born and raised in Hector and graduated from Hector High School in 1967. She was one of nine children in the Schwiderski family. She married Gary Baumgarten, who is deceased. Mary has three children and seven grandchildren and currently lives in Buffalo Lake. She has been working with Food for Kidz since 2003. Food for Kidz recently purchased the Stewart Public School building. With the present ebola crisis in Africa, the efforts of getting food to assist in Sierra Leone and Liberia are first and foremost right now for the company. Food for Kidz has been involved in the shipment of several million meals already and are working with four or five different organizations to get it shipped there and distributed. They anticipate that the need in these countries will continue for months to come.

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