MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – For many families, the days before Christmas are filled with hurried travel to pick up last minute gifts before the holiday arrives.
For one Texas family, their last minute trip included a plane ride across the country to ensure their brother received the perfect present – the gift of sound.
On December 22, Minnesota's Starkey Hearing Foundation held its annual Give the Gift of Hearing event at their Eden Prairie Office.
For over 30 years, the foundation has helped millions who are hard of hearing by giving away free, customized hearing aids.
In recent years, the Minnesota Vikings have paired with the foundation to help with these missions. Delta Zeta sorority has also become a partner, donating $500,000 this year alone.
On Tuesday, along with Delta Zeta and the Vikings, the foundation fitted 60 patients from 6 to 92-years-old with new, state-of-the-art hearing aids.
Among those receiving the free hearing aids was 20-year-old Antonio Marquez.
Antonio, or Toni, was born in Texas but moved to Mexico as a baby. It was then that he lost his hearing.
In an email to the foundation, his sister Jennifer explained that when he was very young Toni had gotten very sick.
"He was a baby, I don't think he was a year yet," Jennifer said. "Whenever he got sick he got a fever. [My parents] took him to a clinic."
Her mother told Jennifer that the nurse had used penicillin, causing an allergic reaction that left Toni with damaged hearing and sight.
"He was already sick with a fever and then his body had to fight the allergic reaction," Jennifer said. "He was really sick for a while. My mom would stay in a room and it had to be dark because his eyes hurt."
Toni received treatments for his eyes, and eventually they improved. His ears, however, never did.
As a young teen, Toni had had hearing aids, but when those died the family had been unable to provide new ones. Roughly five years ago, his cousins pitched in a bought one generic hearing aid which he has been using since.
A few years back, Toni moved in with Jennifer in Dallas. With a young daughter and a husband deployed in Afghanistan, Jennifer was having trouble helping Toni too.
"I just searched the Internet for anything that could help him," Jennifer said. "I can't do it all. I have to find a way. That's why I reached out. I don't normally do that, but I just said the truth."
A week prior to their visit she sent an email to the generic Starkey Hearing Foundation contact not knowing if she would hear back. The email found its way to co-founder Tani Austin and on Tuesday, Toni, Jennifer and her daughter landed in Minneapolis.
"I feel weird because I'm not the type of person to ask for help," Jennifer said. "I was like, this can't be happening. This can't be true."
Just as with the other patients, Toni began his visit by getting his hearing tested. Of all 60 patients, Toni had the worst hearing.
Then, an audiologist made a mold of Toni's ear so the hearing aid would be perfectly contoured to his ear.
An individual hearing aid was created, and a few hours later, fitted.
Finally, it was tested.
"I never knew how bad his hearing was," Jennifer said. "This will just be a huge change."
"There's nothing wrong with these children's brains. Hearing aids are just like glasses and we want to show that hearing aids are sexy," co-founder Tani Austin said.
As a 20-year-old, it's not surprising that for quite some time Toni has desired a certain level of freedom. Jennifer hopes that with the hearing aid Toni will be able to find a new job and with that a new-found freedom.
"He's already 20 and he's going to get older so I want him to be able to depend on himself," she said.
For now, she'll settle with the joy he will experience for hearing his friends and family wish him a "Merry Christmas" for the first time in a long time.
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