Hundreds fitted with new hearing aids

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD --  Smokey Johnson, the drummer for Fats Domino, sitting, was fitted with hearing aids by the Starkey Hearing Foundation Saturday at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in New Orleans. Tani Austin, left, and her husband Dr. Bill Austin, founders of Starkey Hearing Foundation; and actor Lou Ferrigno, right, talk to Johnson after he received his hearing aids.
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Smokey Johnson, the drummer for Fats Domino, sitting, was fitted with hearing aids by the Starkey Hearing Foundation Saturday at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in New Orleans. Tani Austin, left, and her husband Dr. Bill Austin, founders of Starkey Hearing Foundation; and actor Lou Ferrigno, right, talk to Johnson after he received his hearing aids.

More beautiful sounds than ever met the ears of visitors at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music on Saturday afternoon as nearly 300 hearing-impaired people received customized, free hearing devices provided by the Starkey Hearing Foundation.

Dr. Bill Austin, of Minneapolis, Minn., founder of the foundation, attended the event to fit patients with their devices.

“This is the crowning moment where (patients) are receiving the gift of hearing either for the first time or hearing better than they ever have in their life,” said Brady Forseth, foundation executive director.

“It’s more than the gift of hearing, it’s about caring and sharing with people and reflecting that caring and … showing people dignity and respect,” he said.

“Our founder lives by the motto that alone, you can only do so much, but together, you can change the world,” Forseth said.

A number of NFL players — including Craig Stevens of the Tennessee Titans, Greg Jennings of the Green Bay Packers, and the Saints’ Brian de la Puente — attended the event to support those being fitted with hearing devices.

“The work that the Starkey Foundation is doing and the campaign for ‘So the World May Hear’ is just truly inspirational stuff,” de la Puente said.

“My youngest sister, she’s deaf, and it’s close to my heart,” he said. “The gift of hearing is something that is often taken for granted — and to see somebody hear for the first time and just to kind of see the joy, the amazement, the opening of a door to a new world, is inspirational.”

Hearing aid recipients included a number of New Orleans-area musicians such as legendary retired drummer Smokey Johnson and singer/guitarist Owen Tufts, also known on stage as “Big Daddy O.”

“I thought I was hearing everything before, but I see what I’ve been missing,” Johnson said.

“I just thought people mumbled,” Tufts said with a hint of good humor. “My wife even said I had selective hearing, but now I don’t.”

Members of Delta Zeta sorority’s University of New Orleans chapter brought 200 dressed and styled teddy bears, each wearing its own hearing device, to pass out to hearing aid recipients young and old.

One child, Maci Rowan, heard for the first time on Friday afternoon thanks to the foundation’s help. Maci, who also suffers from cerebral palsy, said she is looking forward to hearing more of her favorite band, One Direction.

Another hearing aid recipient, Garrett Harris, 14, also enjoyed a unique musical experience as recording artist and former American Idol winner Jordin Sparks serenaded him with a very moving rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Television and film actor Lou Ferrigno, another in attendance, has worked with the Starkey Hearing Foundation since Austin fit him with his own hearing aid more than 20 years ago.

Ferrigno, 61, has been hearing impaired since he was a toddler.

“In my time, I was ashamed even to talk about it,” he said.

Ferrigno said he is glad to be able to serve as a role model for other hearing-impaired individuals.

“I’m happy to be here because especially when they see that I have hearing aids, they don’t feel isolated. That’s important,” he said.