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Robin Huebner, Published September 21 2012

Robin Huebner reports: Silent parents spur priest’s effort to help deaf in Peru

GRAND FORKS – Imagine growing up in a household where neither parent could hear nor speak a single word, an isolated and embarrassed child living in the world of the hearing.

This was the childhood the Rev. Phil Ackerman of Holy Family Church in Grand Forks remembers. Raised on a farm near Reynolds with three other siblings, his parents were both deaf and unable to speak.

That early experience paved the way for a later effort to help more than 100 deaf or hard of hearing people in Chimbote, Peru, where another North Dakota-born priest, the Rev. Jack Davis, has served for 38 years.

Ackerman’s father became deaf at age 3 after a bout with scarlet fever. His mother suffered the same fate at 6 months of age after being stricken with Asiatic flu.

“It was a very quiet household growing up,” Ackerman recalled. “It was especially difficult for my oldest brother because there were no speaking people in the house.”

When the other siblings came along, they used sign language with their parents, but that often made others uneasy. “It meant being left out of a lot of family and social gatherings,” said Ackerman, with sadness in his voice.

He would later feel a kinship over that sadness with the people of Chimbote.

During Ackerman’s numerous trips there, he noticed that most deaf or hard of hearing children did not know sign language, so they had no good way to communicate.

“Seeing people forgotten, I know what that’s like to feel left out,” says Ackerman, and because of that isolation, “I see them as amongst the poorest of the poor.”

It was only fitting then, that a Grand Forks couple with expertise in hearing loss went with Ackerman on one of those trips. Richard and Aida Wakefield of Wakefield Hearing say the need was certainly great.

“There is no office in Chimbote to help people with hearing problems, in a city of almost a half million people,” Richard Wakefield said. While people can see their primary doctor, few have access to hearing aids.

The Wakefields and several other volunteers went to work, creating one hearing aid after another from a special impression material. “Usually, we send it out to the lab,” Richard Wakefield said. “In Peru, we had to improvise.”

The compelling stories were numerous. There was the cab driver who’d served in the Peruvian military, where his commanding officer hit him in the ears multiple times, causing hearing loss. There were children whose eardrums were perforated due to chronic ear infections. The hugs were numerous, too.

“They were so happy, so grateful,” Aida Wakefield said, “tears came to my eyes.”

Ackerman feels grateful as well. He received the first ever Father Jack Davis Starfish award at a gala fundraiser Thursday night in Fargo, an award named for a story about the power each individual has to make a difference.

“I’m humbled by it,” Ackerman said. “There are a lot of other people who deserve it.”

He’ll get more chances to make a difference when he leads another group of volunteers to Peru next June.

Fundraiser nets $200K, more being accepted

A fundraiser Thursday night in Fargo raised $200,000 to help the poor in Father Jack’s mission in Chimbote, Peru.

The total included a $100,000 matching grant from an unnamed couple among an estimated 400 attendees.

“This will go a long way in helping us meet the enormous and ongoing need we have to fund our mission programs,” said Susan Trnka, executive director of Friends of Chimbote.

To donate, log on to www.friendsofchimbote.org or call (701) 364-0162.

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