OLIVER STERN was born deaf. He underwent 20 surgeries at a very young age and got cochlear implants in order to recover his hearing. His parents describe that incredible moment when he was first able to respond to their voices as a lightbulb going off.
“They’d been banging pots and pans, trying to get my attention for so long,” says Oliver. He went to a school for children with disabilities and was taught how to adapt to his new hearing before transferring into a mainstream classroom. What Oliver learned at that first school was more than just the foundations of aural communication, though. He saw how some children struggled after losing or breaking a hearing device. He also saw how special his community of support was and how other children with disabilities were stigmatized and bullied. He vowed to change this dynamic, and to give every child a way to feel empowered.
Oliver is a 2017 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards recipient for his incredible work founding OUR ABILITIES, educating students about what it’s like to live with a disability and providing equipment and services to low-income children globally.
We spoke to Oliver about his great work and learned a lot about hearing exams, student awareness, and what it feels like to try to read while blindfolded.
Speaking with Oliver Stern:
What was it like growing up in Miami Beach, Florida?
It’s beautiful here. I mean the best part about it is being close to all my friends and family. I’ve had the same group of friends since I was really young and we all live so close to each other we can just meet for a game of basketball or hang out.
Who would you say has had the greatest positive influence on your life?
Definitely my parents. They’ve always believed in me and also, they’ve taught me that whatever success I have, the most important thing to do is give back to the community.
Can you tell me about a time when you experienced or witnessed someone with a disability being treated differently?
I remember seeing a blind person on the corner, about to cross the street. And there were these kids nearby teasing her, like Where am I now? And that sort of thing.
It’s just so hard to understand what it feels like unless you’ve experienced it yourself. Which is why when we do our educational programs at North Beach Elementary School, we do simulations so people know what it feels like to live with a disability.
What are these simulations like?
So, with OUR ABILITIES, we want to educate students about what it feels like to actually live with a disability. So, the education component of the program is called “One World Many Abilities.” It’s a three-day program that we do at North Beach Elementary. The way the program works is this: the first day is a speaker day – we bring in someone with a disability to speak about what life is like for him or her. This provides unique insights, because honestly students have no idea of the challenges that people have to go through every day.
The second day is the simulation day. So, we provide everyone with blindfolds, wheelchairs, sound-canceling head pieces – and the students have to learn how to overcome simple daily tasks. Like learning to read when you’re blind, or even sitting at a lunch table or getting around the school in a wheelchair. And then the last day is a debriefing about what they learned and what they experienced – we’ve already had 900 students go through the program.
And you also hand out hearing aids and equipment, is that right? How?
Right, so the second component of OUR ABILITIES is “Oliver’s Hearing Aid Bank,” which gives equipment and services to the hearing impaired. So far, we’ve raised more than $88,000 and helped over 135 kids receive hearing devices that allow them to hear. Of those 135, ten are from out of the country, making Oliver’s Hearing Aid Bank global!
How does that work?
Really, there are two main ways. First, we partnered with the University of Miami. When a hearing device is lost or broken, we have the person in need come in and fill out this simple form. And then we also do screenings for hearing loss or impairment. For example, we do a screening at the Overtown Youth Center in Miami (which provides holistic programming for at-risk youth) – there are always ten kids who we spot with hearing loss. Sometimes it’s a blockage because of wax buildup or it could be a burst eardrum.
What are some of the reactions you’ve gotten from these screenings?
Obviously, the first reaction was gratefulness. Because if you’re a child, and you lose or break a hearing device, maybe you don’t have health insurance to help cover the cost of getting a new one, or it could take months for any kind of help. With our screenings, the effect is immediate. So, it’s a huge relief. For some of these kids, it means they can go back to school and learn again. Or they can hang out with friends again because they can hear.
What’s the hardest part about running OUR ABILITIES?
I think the hardest part is convincing people that we can make a real-world impact. You know, getting people on board. As a teenager, it’s hard to convince adults that I can make a true difference. Thankfully, I have parents who always encourage and support me and tell me I can do this.
What’s the most rewarding part of OUR ABILITIES?
I mean, so much. I remember one educational workshop. After the debriefing was over the third day, one girl stood up. And she had never told anyone this, but she said the workshop had given her the courage to tell her friends that she had multiple sclerosis. She didn’t know how they were going to react but now she had the confidence to say that. And that’s when I really saw that we were changing people’s lives.
What’s next for OUR ABILITIES? For you?
Well, we definitely want to expand to different counties and different states. I personally want to promote disability awareness for the rest of my life. I mean, I’m going into my junior year of high school now and hope to go to college. And I’m still open to studying a lot of things. Maybe focusing on becoming a politician or a lawyer. So, I can really advocate for disability awareness and make a profound impact.
Any last words or thoughts about getting this honor from the Diller Foundation?
I’m just so thankful to the Helen Diller Foundation. This award is huge in terms of being recognized and it helps so many organizations pursue community service. You know, it’s so easy for people to be critical of other’s efforts and say that kids can’t do it, but the Helen Diller Foundation really rewards teens and tells us that we can make a difference. And I’m so grateful for that.
This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.org.