Here, hidden deep in the Appalachian region, where there’s no clear route for arrival. Google maps and GPS don’t track the quiet timberlands, but the locals know how to navigate the hallows – or “hallers,” as they say in southern Kentucky. They know to turn left at the bright blue convenience store, then head past the post office and the retirement home to get to the old coal mine. The massive, abandoned structure hidden perfectly by the forest. A reminder of a hidden disability that affects so many of the former miners.
“My dad was a coal miner. He worked 26 years in deep mines, and 16 of those years he run a roof bolter and he drilled through sand stone and it made this turbo loud squealing noise. Just this slow drill bit turning…
Local resident Tommy Hubbard is one of those who knows the hallers like the back of his hand.
“For the longest time, even up to the time he retired, his hearing was comparable to everybody else’s,” he explains, “but once he hit 45, he would hold his hand up to his ear, and then, there just really wasn’t any resources to turn to.”
His story isn’t unique. Nearly everyone in the region near Beverly, Kentucky knows someone who worked in the mines.
And it’s not just hearing loss that leaves a dark shadow over the community. Mining comes with numerous dangers, even death. Like back in 1970 when the Hurricane Creek Mine exploded, killing 38 men. Only one man survived when he was blown out of the mine.
We stop at the memorial and Tommy recalls the names of relatives and friends, marked by replicas of their empty mining helmets.
As we drive further up the rolling hills, Tommy points at a Mountaintop removal operation. Millions of pounds of explosives have cleared the trees from the hilltops, leaving the layers of the gray and brown earth exposed. The equipment still stands, but there’s no movement. The only sounds are from the birds overhead and an empty beer can Tommy kicks away from a makeshift fire pit left behind by some local teenagers.
These days, coal employment is at its lowest since the late 1800’s. In the past eight years, nearly 13,000 coal jobs have disappeared in Kentucky, largely due to aggressive environmental regulations and the rise of cheap natural gas, according to the New York Times.
But for the residents, the industry wasn’t all bad. Because despite the health dangers and environmental concerns, it allowed them to work, make money… and live.
Those who had mining job were the ones able to care for their family and afford the homes closer to the main roads; the ones with the covered porches where they could sit and listen to the rushing water in the creek and watch the children play in the yard.
The difference now is that so many of them are sitting in silence.
Hearing loss is prevalent in the region, but hearing aids are mostly unobtainable – largely due to the cost of the technology and the inaccessibility of health care.
With the mines closed, work is few and far between. More than 25 percent of the people living in the Kentucky Appalachian region are in poverty. (The area has the worst poverty rate in the combined Appalachian regions of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, and well below the US average of 15.6 percent, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).)
Look around, however, and you might notice hearing aids in many of the local’s ears. State-of-the-art, custom fit, in-the-ear hearing aids, even.
They’re wearing gifts from the Hear the World Foundation.
Donned in white polo shirts and otoscopes in hand, Hear the World volunteers are now a common sight here. It’s the eighth year the volunteers are in the community to host hearing screenings at the Red Bird Mission and Clinic. Teams visit several times each year to make adjustments, repairs and ensure the recipients of the Phonak hearing aids are getting the most from their technology. Many of the patients great the volunteers with hugs and homemade gifts.
The Appalachian project is the only U.S.-based project for the Hear the World Foundation, which mostly focuses on helping deaf children from countries such as Malawi, Haiti and India.
“We wanted to go someplace where we could do something sustainable,” says Cathy Jones, project leader of Hear Appalachia and former executive director of Hear the World US. “We could go into a lot of inner cities and pass out hearing aids, but we would have no evidence or ability to go in and do re-checks, do follow up appointments or take care of repairs; and sustainability and growing deep was really vital to how we wanted to make a difference.”
Red Bird Mission and Clinic is more like a town center for the neighboring counties, providing basic medical care to around 10‘000 people. With the life expectancy in the region 6 years below average for the USA, the clinic is a lifeline for residents, providing everything from clothes to clean water.
The residents have a lot to worry about, and if it wasn’t for Hear the World showing up multiple times a year, hearing aids would probably be one of the last things on their mind.
“The thing with this community is they may not realize at the time that they are in such bad need,” says Angela Hubbard, a nurse and project manager at the clinic. “They might not know the difference of normal hearing and what they’re dealing with because they’ve dealt with it for so long. They think that this is the way it’s going to be.
“When Hear the World gives the gift of sound it’s a great joy. It opens up a whole new realm for that person.”
People like Sabrina, the mom of two toddlers who can now tell the difference in her children’s tones of voice. Bailey Morgan, a 92-year-old who lives with his granddaughter and can now have conversations without being screamed at over the TV. And Tommy’s father, who was so emotional about being able to hear again and have conversations with his wife that he wanted to renew his vows.
These are the people who come back, year after year, with their beloved hearing aids.
“I saw someone this week who had hearing aids from 2005, so they’re 11 years old,” says Meghan Ley, a volunteer and audiologist with Connect Hearing in Canada. “Typically back in my clinic back home where people are more able to afford their hearing aid, their hearing aids have been destroyed in about five years. Here we’re seeing them being taking care of so meticulously. It’s really nice to see someone treasure our work.”
And that’s all the program can really ask for.
“It’s changing this whole valley forever,” Jones says. “For these people their activity is socialization. They don’t watch a lot of TV, they don’t listen to a lot of radio. They spend a lot of time at a house of worship or the senior center. The more we come, the more we see the appreciation.
“That’s why we do what we do.”
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