This weekend, hundreds of girls gathered for the Stanford Women in Business's Young Leaders Summit. Ears for Years founder Grace O'Brien spoke to two hundred high school girls about how important their voices are. Grace told her own story, starting from her inspiration to start Ears for Years. She discussed what it's like to be a young girl in the business world, highlighting how important it is for the youth to use their passion and originality to find lasting solutions. The girls were curious about different aspects of Ears for Years, and asked Grace what it was like to be a young girl managing a nonprofit organization. Grace explained that her age didn't define her path, and that her youthful optimism is actually a strength.
"Your age, gender, or background don't define where you are going," Grace told the girls enthusiastically. "Be crazy enough to believe that you can make a change in the world."
Check out the interview ThinkSTEAM did with Ears for Years founder, Grace O'Brien! The organization is looking to empower girls in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.
The Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes is awarded to some of the most influential young innovators. The young-people who receive this award are designing answers to tough global problems, and using their drive to engage community involvement. Some of the winners include Deepika Kurup, a seventeen year old who designed a sustainable method for purifying water, Olivia Russo-Hood, a thirteen year old who created Save the Earth Project, and Grace O'Brien, founder of Ears for Years. Check out some of the stories here.
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The following article was written by, David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.
Grace O’Brien’s motto has always been, “I don’t know what I want to be, but I want to be something great. Meaning, I want to make sure that whatever I choose to do, it’s making a positive impact.”
So far, the 18-year old Stanford freshman is off to a pretty good start. At 14, she founded the nonprofit Ears for Years, which has supplied hundreds of low-cost, solar-powered hearing aids to children in developing countries. And O’Brien has already received national attention as one of the 2015 winners of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes.
When she was growing up, O’Brien says, her family was very service-minded. She often spent Sunday mornings serving food at a local homeless shelter or making blankets for hospitals with her sisters. But the issue of hearing loss really hit home when her father developed a brain tumor and suffered some hearing loss, making communication difficult. Later, while looking for a summer volunteer position, she discovered a theater camp for deaf children.
“I knew it was the perfect place for me to integrate my love for theater and volunteering,” O’Brien says. “As I worked with the kids over the summer, I realized how important hearing aids were to many of the children's ability to learn and communicate. I became more involved in the deaf community that summer, and I discovered that there are roughly 30 million hard-of-hearing children in developing countries who could benefit from a hearing aid but don’t have access to one.”
According to the World Health Organization, of the 360 million people around the world who suffer from hearing loss, 32 million are children, and the majority are in developing countries.
“I wanted to find a sustainable and affordable solution, so when I came across Solar Ear, I knew I had to work with them,” O’Brien says. “I reached out to the founder of Solar Ear, Howard Weinstein, and we realized many of our goals were aligned, so it seemed like a perfect fit to work together. My friends and family served as pillars of support, helping me arrange fund-raisers and get the word out. I also created a club at my high school.”
Founded in 2003, Solar Ear sought to address not only the high cost of hearing aids in developing countries, but also the difficulty and high cost of keeping them charged. Standard hearing aids can cost as much as $1,000, require constant battery changes, and don’t have a long life span. The Solar Ear device is $100, has a three-year life span, and includes rechargeable batteries that use a solar-powered charger. The charger can also be plugged into a light socket to recharge.
“In the developing world, people lucky enough to own a hearing aid either can’t get hold of or can’t afford the batteries which, by the way, they have to replace once a week,” Weinstein told the World Health Organization. “So the devices end up on a shelf somewhere or in the kitchen drawer.”
Weinstein shares O’Brien’s desire to make a positive impact.
“We could have patented the Solar Ear charger in a heartbeat, but we wanted people to copy us,” Weinstein said. “In fact, if somebody ends up producing a cheaper, better version of the Solar Ear and uses their distribution channel to get more products to more children with hearing loss, we will have attained our objective—even if that puts us out of business.”
So far, Solar Ear has gone into production in Brazil, China, Mexico, the Russian Federation, and Singapore, with one condition from Weinstein: that deaf people be involved in making them.
“Hearing aids can be an essential tool for communication for someone who is hard of hearing,” says O’Brien, “so I think it’s important for children who need them to have them, to retain information, get a valid education, and have a chance at building a better life for themselves.”
O’Brien explains that many developing countries don’t have special schools or accommodations for deaf children, so it can be difficult for them to learn and interact with their peers.
“I believe every child should be given the tools they need to get a valid education,” she says, “and for hard-of-hearing children, that tool set might be a little different.”
O’Brien has already traveled to Mexico, Sri Lanka, Honduras, Nicaragua, and South Korea, fitting hundreds of children with Solar Ear hearing aids and educating communities about deafness.
“Many people don’t know what causes deafness,” she says, “so explaining it can help to prevent and eradicate prejudices.” Among children, chronic otitis media, meaning a long-standing ear infection, is the leading cause of hearing impairment.
While O’Brien hopes to continue providing deaf and hard-of-hearing children around the world with hearing aids, she’s casting a much wider net for her future.
“By spreading the word and fighting for people with disabilities, I hope I can find ways to convince countries that don’t already have accommodations to implement programs and accommodations for children with disabilities,” she says. “I’m still young, and my life has the potential to take many different paths, but wherever I go, I want to make sure I’m making a positive difference.”
Check out the Huffington Post Article written about Ears for Years!
This young woman is making the future sound positive for all kids.
Grace O’Brien, 18, is the founder of Ears for Years -- a nonprofit that distributes low-cost, solar-powered hearing aids to children in developing countries, USA Today reported. The college freshman has distributed the devices, which are sustainable and environmentally friendly, to kids in five different countries around the globe so far, with plans to reach more families in need in 2016.
“This hearing aid is giving them a chance to escape poverty,” O’Brien told the news outlet. “It’s giving them the chance to get a valid education and I think that’s really amazing.”
O’Brien was inspired to found Ears for Years after witnessing her father experience hearing loss. To further understand the condition, O'Brien volunteered at a summer theater camp for children who were deaf, the Orange County Register reported. There, she saw the impact hearing aids made on the young campers, and wanted to find a way to make these devices more accessible, especially to families who could not afford them.
“I've learned how powerful solutions are,” O'Brien told the news outlet. “There are so many problems we come across in our daily lives, but often people pass up the opportunity to find solutions.”
After doing some research, she came across Solar Ear, a Brazil-based company that manufactures low-cost hearing aids, targeted specifically at children. These devices are lightweight, cost just about $100 and are equipped with rechargeable batteries that last up to three years, whereas standard hearing aids can cost up to $1,000 and have a much shorter lifespan.
“We wish to get children before the age of 3 a hearing aid which will give them the ability to hear therefore the opportunity to communicate,” Solar Ear wrote on its website. “These children will then be able to go to a public school as there are few schools for the deaf, especially in developing countries.”
According to the World Health Organization, 32 million children worldwide live with disabling hearing loss -- the majority of them are in low and middle-income countries.
According to Forbes, current production levels of hearing aids meet less than 10 percent of the global need, and O’Brien would like to change that statistic by making the solar-powered devices accessible to families in need around the world. So far, she has brought Solar Ear’s products to Mexico, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Nicaragua and Honduras, as reported by USA Today, but recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to further advance her work.
The 18-year-old was awarded a Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, telling USA Today of the achievement, “It was so amazing to see that in that moment, I had done something that would make a difference in somebody else’s life.”
To donate to the Ears for Years GoFundMe campaign, click here.
Check out the Article & Video Here.
PALO ALTO, Calif. – Grace O’Brien is 18 years old and has already changed the lives of hundreds of deaf children.
“As soon as he put on the hearing aid, his whole face just lit up,” said O’Brien, founder of Ears for Years, Inc., a non-profit organization that distributes solar-powered hearing aids to deaf children in developing countries. “You could just see in his eyes that something had changed.”
At the young age of 14, O’Brien knew she was destined to help children around the world. Her father had been suffering from hearing loss due to a brain tumor. “I became interested in the issue,” she said.
In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 360 million people experienced disabling hearing loss of which 32 million were children. WHO also estimated “the prevalence of disabling hearing loss in children is greatest in South Asia, Asia Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa.”
“Hearing aid batteries cost about a dollar a week,” O’Brien said. “For some families that could be their salary for the week.” She searched high and low for a sustainable solution and found Solar Ear, a Brazil-based company that developed solar-powered hearing aids. The battery takes approximately two hours to recharge by harnessing energy from the sun or a light bulb.
O’Brien recalled the first time she fit a child with the hearing aid. He was a 3-year-old boy in Mexico. “This tiny little thing,” she said. “His mom was right beside me and she started crying. You could just feel the emotion in the room,” she remembered.
O'Brien fits Jesus, a student at the Lakeside School for the Deaf in Mexico, with hearing aid molds. (Photo: Ears for Years)
She has traveled to Mexico, Sri Lanka, Honduras, Nicaragua and South Korea fitting children with these hearing aids. “This hearing aid is giving them a chance to escape poverty. It’s giving them the chance to get a valid education and I think that’s really amazing,” she said.
O’Brien is currently a freshman at Stanford University and was among the 2015 winners of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, an honor awarded to 25 young leaders ages 8 to 18 years who “have made a significant positive impact on people, their communities and the environment.”
“It was so amazing to see that in that moment, I had done something that would make a difference in somebody else’s life,” O’Brien said.
Founder of Ears for Years, Grace O'Brien, named a Gloria Barron Prize Winner for inspiring, public-spirited young people from diverse backgrounds all across North America. Check out the article:
In the summer of 2012, Grace O’Brien, a 15-year-old sophomore at Tesoro High School, volunteered to teach theater skills to deaf children at a summer camp. Her father had suffered a degree of hearing loss the previous year, and Grace found the camp to be an opportunity to come to terms with the disability while also indulging in her passion for theater.
Later that same year, inspired by her experiences at camp, Grace founded Ears for Years, a non-profit organization that provides solar-powered hearing aids to impoverished children in underdeveloped countries.
At the age of 6, Grace was already doing community service with her family. On weekends, the O’Briens would help cook at a homeless shelter in Santa Ana, and each Christmas they gathered hundreds of toys for other children. Grace also started volunteering with the Girl Scouts in kindergarten, which taught her the importance of community outreach.
Since then, she has developed a passion for volunteering, but it wasn’t until her experience at camp that her passion drove her farther than many teens her age can imagine.
“There was one child I met that summer, Alana,” Grace said. “I was helping her pronounce her lines, and all of a sudden she broke down crying… she said, ‘I can’t do it. I won’t ever be able to do it.’ This 4-year-old's lack of confidence in herself inspired me to find new ways to help the deaf community. I didn’t want any child to feel like they ‘couldn’t do it.’”
Alana eventually got used to her hearing aid and learned how to communicate, making remarkable progress by the end of the summer. Deeply motivated by the transformations she saw in the children at camp, Grace has continued to devote her efforts to help hearing-impaired children.
By raising funds and establishing connections with other non-profits, this Orange County teenager is planning a mission trip to Cambodia, where she will work alongside All Ears Cambodia, a nonprofit that provides medical care for the hearing-impaired, before heading to Stanford this fall for her freshman year of college.
Upon starting her organization, Grace was convinced that all it took were the right tools. She did some research online and found Howard Weinstein, the owner of a Brazil-based company called Solar Ear that produces solar-powered hearing aids.
“I wanted to try to find the most sustainable and affordable hearing aids,” Grace said, “and when I found Solar Ear I knew it was just what I was looking for.”
She contacted Weinstein, who agreed to provide her with the hearing aids at a low cost.
“In a way, her organization and my company—we have the same mission,” Weinstein says. “So I understood exactly where she was coming from, and obviously, given the same mission, I was motivated to help her.”
For just $100, a child in need is supplied with a hearing aid kit, which includes the hearing aid, a solar charger, and four rechargeable batteries.
“It’s a great deal,” Grace explains, “because normal hearing aids can cost up to a $1,000 each. They also need their batteries replaced every week, which is $1 for each replacement—that is close to someone’s salary in a developing country.”
In order to afford the kits, Grace initially began selling hundreds of handmade leather bracelets. Now, she accepts cash donations and used clothing to fund her organization, and has also established an affiliation with Chloe and Isabel, a jewelry merchandiser that donates half of their proceeds from a special collection of jewelry to Ears for Years.
In the past three years, with the help of these donations and fundraisers, Grace has been able to travel to Mexico, Sri Lanka, Haiti, South Korea, and Nicaragua on “mission trips,” where she meets with local audiologists and conducts hearing tests in order to find the best candidates for the hearing aids. Over 200 children in need have received hearing aids thanks to Grace’s efforts.
Although she usually travels alone on her mission trips, Grace is sometimes accompanied by her older sister Kate, who is the director of Analytics and Distribution for Ears for Years. Kate handles the organization’s finances and helps set up the mission trips.
“Her organization is becoming better known, she’s building very nice partnerships around the world,” Weinstein comments, “so I’ve seen her and her company grow—you know, as an organization and as a person—and I’m very happy for her. She’s done a great job.”
In 2014, Grace was selected as one of the Hasbro Community Action Hero semi-finalists, who are nominated and chosen for their “dedication to service and efforts to impact their local and global communities.”
While Grace plans to major in computer science or global studies at Stanford University, she also plans to eventually expand Ears for Years to the United States. More importantly, she hopes to build school curriculums that benefit the hearing-impaired as well as to keep finding the best technology for the hearing aids.
“I've learned how powerful solutions are,” Grace says. “There are so many problems we come across in our daily lives, but often people pass up the opportunity to find solutions.”
Grace has embraced this lesson with her work through Ears for Years, and intends to keep contributing to the world as much as she can.
When asked about her plans for the future, Grace replied, “I want to find a career that allows me to continue to make an impact on other people’s lives.”
- written by Michelle Phan. Michelle Phan is a journalism intern for the Register. She graduated from Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove this year and this fall will be a freshman at UC Santa Barbara.