News14th December 2015

Young American changing the lives of Deaf children in the developing world

Just 18, Grace O'Brien is made of wonderfully caring stuff.

by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

Every day is a good day to do something that helps others, but the run in to Christmas is a great time to reflect on some of the outstanding contributions made to help and support Deaf children. Top of the pile, is the most amazing 18 years old young lady, Grace O’Brien, an American Stanford Freshman who has already done more good in her short life, than many people achieve in their whole lives.

Grace grew up in a family that was service minded and it tells. Making blankets for a local hospital with her sisters from a young age, or spending Sunday mornings serving food for a local homeless shelter, her link to deaf people came when her father developed a brain tumour causing him to lose some hearing. Looking for a volunteering opportunity, Grace discovered a theatre camp for deaf children. Taking up a position there and then working with deaf children, she recognised how important hearing aids were to many of the children, however, she also found out that access to high quality hearing aids was far from guaranteed for many deaf children.

Aged just 14, Grace founded the not-for-profit organisation, Ears for Years which has supplied hundreds of low-cost, solar-powered hearing aids to children in developing countries. Grace is already an award winner for her efforts, picking up one of the 2015 Gloria Barron Prizes for Young Heroes.

Ears for Years was formed following Grace’s reading about there being 278 million Deaf or Hard of Hearing people world-wide, with two-thirds of those people living in developing countries without access to hearing aids, and Grace wanted to play her part in trying to improve things. Instinctively, she wanted work to solve this problem by coming up with a modern solution. For her, that meant something that was sustainable, affordable, and environmentally friendly. Using solar power and the Solar Ear hearing aids, she has done just that and is now seeking to make these more available to children who need them, in the developing world.

Setting up Ears for Years, Grace’s mission was to supply environmentally friendly solar powered hearing aids to underprivileged deaf children in developing countries around the world. The World Health Organisation estimates that 20 million hearing aids are needed annually in those countries, with only 1 million provided, so the task in hand in huge. As Grace says on her website, “That is an alarming statistic and a sad reflection on how health concerns of people in developing nations are neglected by the world community.”

Supported by family and friends and building a good working relationship with Edward Weinstein the founder of Solar Ear, Grace set about some fund raising to get the ball rolling, including creating a club to support the project at her own school. Unlike other hearing aids, Solar Ear is readily charged using sun-light, thereby getting over one of the biggest hurdles in the developing world – how to keep the hearing aids charged. Costing just $100, the hearing aids are also a lot more affordable. Weinstein himself has a fantastic attitude to his business, positively encouraging others in the market to improve the technology that sits behind Solar Ear, as it is the end user of this hearing aid that he is most interested in, even though that may damage his own business.

Having sourced the product and set up her fund-raising vehicle, Grace set about getting the vital funds needed to buy the hearing aids and get them to where they were most needed. In four years of running Ears for Years, Grace has seen 200 children in five different countries around the world fitted with hearing aids, Grace herself delighting in the faces of the children when they hear for the first time.

Driven by her motto, ‘I don’t know what I want to be, but I want to be great’, Grace has already taken Solar Ear hearing aids to Mexico, Sri Lanka, Honduras, Nicaragua and South Korea. In addition to providing hearing aids to children, Grace also embarks on raising awareness about deaf and other disabled children in these communities and amongst the policy makers, hoping to get people to look at these children through more caring eyes. The problem as she sees it, is that the deaf are not a priority for health related solutions – they are treated as outcasts.

Empowered and emboldened by her first experience of providing hearing aids in Mexico, Grace’s ambitions remain. Those first aids went to 3 year-old Jesus, with his mum looking on. As the hearing aids were turned on, Grace told journalists that he let out a tiny giggle, and that his mother’s eyes welled with tears. Understandably, overcome with emotion herself, she was hugged by Jesus’ mother, and we can but imagine the powerful and sustained impact that experience will have had on Grace, helping to drive her on for many years to come.

Ears for Years is already a success, but ambitions remain for Grace and the team to make a difference to many more young people’s lives. Through donations from a GoFundMe page and other fundraising methods, you can support Grace in being able to give children hearing aids from Solar Ear. You can find out more about Grace’s programme of work at:

Fiercely determined, Grace comes from a background which means that helping others is a part of who she is. She is driven to make a difference through her efforts but is already mature enough to recognise that the changes required are likely to take time, capturing the extent of the challenge in this comment. “Success for me would be to change people’s lives one hearing aid at a time.”

For someone so young, Grace’s attitude to helping others and the results she has achieved are remarkable, and whilst much credit goes to her, her family, teachers and friends, also deserve great praise. Just imagine the difference one thousand Graces would make!!

Article by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

posted in Community / News

14th December 2015