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.