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Providing hope and hearing aids: Sister Rosemary's mission to help the children of Uganda

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe discusses the challenges people still face in her formerly war-torn country of Uganda with NBC News Special Correspondent Chelsea Clinton.


By Chelsea Clinton, NBC News Special Correspondent

KAMPALA, Uganda – For more than 30 years, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus have worked to help victims of the long Sudanese Civil War and Ugandans seeking refuge from the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Kony’s LRA has conscripted tens of thousands of boys and girls as soldiers and sex slaves and murdered tens of thousands of people.  Sister Rosemary is arguably the person who has done the most to help Kony’s victims recover and rebuild their lives.

In 2002, Sister Rosemary founded the St. Monica’s School and Tailoring Centre in Gulu, Uganda, her hometown, to teach literacy and vocational skills, such as tailoring.  Since opening, St. Monica’s has trained more than 2,000 girls who have escaped from the LRA and Kony. She said a major goal of the school is to give the girls and young women back the “dignity” and “self-respect” that Kony and the LRA took away.   

Now Sister Rosemary has turned her attention to another goal: helping people in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan hear with the help of Starkey Hearing Foundation.

Barbara Kinney

Rosemary, NBC News Special Correspondent Chelsea Clinton, Starkey Hearing Technologies founder Bill Austin (second from left), Tani Austin (front left) and Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald (right) in Kampala, Uganda.

Due to a combination of factors, including a limited awareness that deafness can be treated and a lack of sufficient medical care, there are millions of people in the developing world and thousands in Uganda alone, with hearing problems that go untreated, but who could be helped by simple hearing aids.  Sister Rosemary says she knows hundreds of people in Northern Uganda and thousands throughout Uganda and South Sudan who struggle with hearing loss.    

“These are people who have resigned. They think they can never hear again and people have put them aside,” Sister Rosemary told me. She said helping them get hearing aids “brings them hope and helps them have a better future.”

Hearing aids
I recently met Sister Rosemary in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. She had brought more than 100 men, women and children from Northern Uganda to Kampala to see Bill Austin, founder of the Starkey Hearing Foundation, and his team. 

Starkey Hearing Technologies is a U.S.-based hearing aid company started in 1967 and currently one of the world’s largest suppliers of hearing aids around the globe. Austin launched the foundation in 1984 with the mission to ensure that people everywhere, particularly children, are properly diagnosed and appropriately treated for their hearing loss.  

Barbara Kinney

Rosemary, NBC News Special Correspondent Chelsea Clinton and Starkey foundation employees at an event to help fit Ugandans with hearing aids in Kampala, Uganda.

Hearing loss challenges more than 60 million children around the world, according to the Starkey Foundation, most of whom do not have access to the hearing devices and care that can help them lead healthy, productive lives. The Starkey Hearing Foundation fits and gives more than 100,000 hearing aids annually.

Austin explained how his company gave root to his foundation, “I did the business side so we could provide hearing aids to the people who could afford it -- so that we would have the leverage and the ability to give hearing to the people who couldn't.”

The foundation’s work goes beyond handing out hearing aid devices to treating ear diseases. “I couldn’t stand to send these kids away with sick ears. So, we started giving medicine to all these kids, showing them how to use it, talking to their families and their school about it,” Austin explained. He added that they’ve also started sending more speech therapists out into the field all over the world.

Power of a smile
It was remarkable to watch Starkey give the gift of hearing for the first time to young children, as well as men and women of all ages. It was equally remarkable watching Sister Rosemary talk to everyone she brought with her with such calm reassurance, in at least six different languages during that one day in Kampala, and to listen to her talk about her work with such joy and conviction.  

A smile “is a great weapon,” she said as she laughed. She said that she can, “never imagine being done” with her work because there will always be more to help. She added that Kony and others are still “trying to keep people – especially – girls, down and afraid.”

For Austin’s part, he explained the rewards of their work.

“It's like giving someone a birthright when you give them hearing. It's like connecting them to life itself when you see the smile come across their face when they hear sound,” said Austin. “To hear their mother’s voice, to hear someone say I love you, just to hear words. A lot of the children have no vocabulary because they haven't heard, they have to develop speech. This is what helps them be all they can be.”

The smiles I saw in Kampala were a clear testament to Austin’s mission and to Sister Rosemary’s determination. And, as Sister Rosemary said, a smile is a good weapon against the LRA and others who want a different, bleaker future for Uganda.

Chelsea Clinton is an NBC News Special Correspondent. She recently traveled with her father, former President Bill Clinton, to Uganda as part of their work with the Starkey Hearing Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. As a member of CGI, the Starkey Hearing Foundation has pledged to give 1 million hearing aids to people and children in need in the developing world by 2020.

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