Ordinarily, I’d be angling for an interview with the luminaries. Soap goddess Susan Lucci stood next to me, preternaturally cheerful The View co-host Sherri Shepherd was nearby and Marlee Matlin, the deaf Oscar winner, had just walked in.
Yet at that moment the only person who fascinated me was 5-year-old Toby Grizzle and those all-important, teary-eyed supporting cast members known as his parents. He’s not a star, although he was encircled by reporters and cameras while a tall, meaty fellow with a bowl of slicked-back hair as white as his lab coat altered his future.
Toby and I have quite a lot in common. He’s a big-cheeked preschooler with significant, unexplained hearing loss, and so was I. He’s got traumatized folks facing the obscene cost of equipment that will help their son, and so did I. He yearns to be normal, to not constantly feel he’s disappointing his parents, teachers and peers. So did I.
Fortunately for me, the Friesses could afford the best hearing aids that existed in the 1970s. It was also several generations ago in hearing technology, and hearing aids then cost perhaps $600 each. Now, they’re at least $2,000 apiece. But either way, it was a necessity that rescued me from a life of avoidable underachievement and isolation, and then—as now—the cost was not covered by any major health insurance policy.
That’s why Saturday’s scene at the Hilton, where the Starkey Hearing Foundation provided free aids for 100 local underprivileged kids—plus hearing-aid-clad Build-a-Bears!—moved me in a special, life-changing way. I saw a gigantic grin spread across young Toby’s face at that moment when the world became infinitely more comprehensible to him, and my priorities shifted like tectonic plates.
The SHF is the charitable arm of America’s largest hearing aid manufacturer. For years, owner Bill Austin has quietly led missions to bring free hearing aids to people in Rwanda and Vietnam, Haiti and the West Bank, in dozens of cities across North America, too. No other charity, foreign or domestic, does this vital work.
I’ve known of these missions for years because I wear Starkey hearing aids and visit their Minneapolis-area headquarters about every 18 months for specialized fittings required by the unusual nature of my own hearing loss. Happily, others are finally learning of them, too, because Matlin spent all spring promoting Starkey on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice.
But it took having Austin and his gang here, in a Hilton ballroom fitting local children who face the same life challenge I did, for me to truly get it. That and talking to Toby’s mom, a substitute teacher, and father, an unemployed construction worker who goes for weeks at a time to Phoenix for the jobs he can pick up.
They had no clue where they would find the thousands needed to buy Toby his aids until the Clark County School District told them of the upcoming Starkey mission in Vegas. Theirs is a standard-issue Vegas recession story, with this extra twist. Said Kellie Grizzle: “My husband’s been off two weeks in June already. Every time we feel like we’re catching up, we fall behind again. I don’t know when we would have been able to afford this.”
As a Starkey volunteer, I comforted families like the Grizzles and guided them from one station to another as their children were fitted. But it was in Toby that I really saw myself, saw the alternative, lesser life I might have had and how crucial this work is. I caught a bug, and I only want more.
Some readers may know I leave Las Vegas and halt this column in August because I won an eight-month journalism fellowship in Michigan. When that’s over, I’ll surely return to covering Vegas in some manner, though I can’t be sure what that means.
But I do know I’ll also be trotting the world with Starkey, fundamentally changing lives and working on a book about those experiences. I have to. In a long-overdue epiphany, I realized there’s something more important in the world than landing an interview with Susan Lucci.