Girls’ passion to help other deaf kids leads to Run to Hear nonprofit

Claire Labry, 22, Bridget Black, 21, and Karlie Franke, 20, met each other when they were 2, 3 and 4 years old and enrolled in a regional day school for the deaf at Brentwood Elementary. They, along with their parents and other children in that early childhood intervention program, formed an informal group they named the Deaf Club.

The girls stayed in touch, even after they went to their neighborhood schools for elementary, middle and high school. Then, in 2011, while in high school, they decided to start the nonprofit Run to Hear to raise money to help families with deaf children.

“What if someone didn’t have the opportunities we had?” Labry says.

That first year, Run to Hear raised $11,000 to help an Amish girl from Iowa get cochlear implants.

Run to Hear has continued to hold an annual 5K run every year, growing in sponsorships and participants. Last year it donated $5,000 to the Dallas Hearing Foundation and $10,000 to Austin’s Any Baby Can’s Children’s Hearing Aid Texas Program.

The girls will be honored Thursday with the Kelly Davidson Memorial Outstanding Philanthropic Youth Award by the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Austin Chapter. Any Baby Can nominated them for the award.

Choosing which deaf path

The girls explain that when they were born, their parents were given a choice between two paths: oral education in which they would learn to lip read and speak, or manual education in which they would learn American Sign Language as their primary form of communication.

Their parents all chose oral education, which was taught at the regional day school, though they all now use and understand some sign language. They were taught cued speech, a method in which teachers and their parents would speak to them while making visual cues with their hands by their lips to explain the sound coming out of their mouths. That helped them learn to speak and lip read.

The girls were all born deaf and know some facts about what might have caused that deafness. Labry knows that the hairs inside her ears are not functional to pick up sound. Black knows she was born prematurely. Her parents didn’t realize she was deaf until she was about 18 months old. The nurse who initially screened her at birth marked her as a hearing baby. Franke has relatives who are deaf and believes there might be a genetic link.

Choosing cochlear implants

The girls had similar paths to making the decision to get cochlear implants. The implant has an external part and an internal part. Outside is a speech processor, transmitter and microphone. Inside is a receiver and an electrode array that sends the impulses collected by the receiver to the auditory nerve for the brain to process.

When the girls were younger, people were waiting to get cochlear implants and then doing them one at a time. Now parents are choosing two implants at once for kids as young as 6 months.

The implants, like the oralist path, have their fans, but they can be controversial in the deaf community. Their detractors believe they are hurtful to deaf culture.

Labry’s parents decided to put an implant in her left ear when she was 4. Her parents, she says, didn’t tell some of their friends in the deaf community that they had decided to give their daughter an implant. Some of those friendships didn’t continue. “A lot of families get a lot of haters,” Labry says.

She got her right ear implant when she was 14. Black was 9 when she got her first one and got the second when she was 17. Franke got her first at 9 and her second at 18.

The implants take a long time to adjust to. At first everything sounds like you’re underwater, they say, and everything is so loud. Imagine hearing an airplane or a train for the first time. It can be very overwhelming.

“You can hear sounds but don’t know what they are,” Labry says.

After the implant is inserted, patients have many sessions of training their brains how to interpret the sounds, and the volume of the implant is raised gradually. The girls still go in every two to three years to get an adjustment.

Even though they added a second implant, the girls say the ear with the first implant will always be stronger because the brain will never rely on the second one as much as it did with the first one.

Once they adjust and train their brain to work with the implant, Franke says, it’s still not the same as a hearing person. “We don’t hear what they hear,” she says. “We hear about 80 percent at best.”

It also gets tricky to understand what’s going on when there is a lot of noise at once. A party or a crowded room can be overwhelming, and they are more comfortable having one-on-one conversations. Sometimes in class, it’s easier to turn off the implants and concentrate on watching the sign language interpreter or reading lips. They also cannot shower or go swimming wearing the external part of the implant.

At the end of the day, they often cannot wait to turn off their implants, they say. “We all have a bad habit of turning them off,” Black says. “It’s like taking of your heels after a long day,” Labry says. “My parents don’t understand it,” Franke says. “First thing I do (when I get home) is take off my ears.”

Living in a hearing world

One of the big things their parents did was find ways to have them socialize with hearing kids. They joined lots of clubs. Black played clarinet in middle school and raised rabbits with Future Farmers of America. Franke was always in sports, from volleyball to water polo. Labry played flute and ran track.

Yet, they all say, even though they were involved with a lot of activities, they never felt quite included. They weren’t outright bullied, but sometimes they knew that people were talking about them behind their backs, even if they didn’t know exactly what was being said.

Sometimes people would say things that were meant to be sweet but were hurtful. Franke remembers one girl telling her, “I feel so sorry for you.” She responded, “I’m just like you. Don’t feel sorry for me.”

They also have experienced people acting differently around them. “They over-enunciate words,” Black says.

“They don’t know,” Franke says. “They’re not surrounded by deaf people every day. Just be you.”

Often people are surprised that they can talk. “There’s a big spectrum of deafness,” Franke says.

Looking to the future

The run has drawn between 200 and 300 people, and they want to grow that this year. Each member of the Deaf Club takes on a different part, from T-shirts to writing letters for sponsorships.

Labry is in her last semester at the University of Texas studying international relations. She’d love to travel and work for a U.S. embassy. Black is a junior at UT and wants to be an audiologist to help kids and adults with cochlear implants. Franke is a sophomore at Southwest Texas State studying child development. She wants to work with families with newly diagnosed deaf children.

The other members of the Deaf Club are Ian Hook, who is in school in San Antonio; Brooke Batterson, who attends Tarrant County Community College; and Jalen McCou, who is at Rochester Institute of Technology.

One of the things that college has taught them is how to be an advocate for themselves and get the services they need. There are different levels of accommodations, including sign language interpreters and note-taking services, that they all use.

They’ve also found friends in fellow deaf students through using sign language, and they’ve met hearing friends who were interested in sign language. Franke is in the process of starting a sign language club at Southwest Texas State.

For Run to Hear, the goal is always to expand it with more people running and more money raised.

“Helping more families at a time would be awesome,” Labry says.

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