“Senator Tom Harkin has not only been a great friend of scientific research,” said former President Bill Clinton at the second annual Rienzi Foundation Gala for Cochlear Implant Research, “but he was also the author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, landmark legislation that protects the civil rights of 54 million Americans.”
The Rienzi Foundation, which has raised more than $500,000 for cochlear implant research, presented Harkin with its annual Leadership Award on March 3 for his decades of advocacy for the hearing impaired. Clinton expressed his admiration for the Iowa senator before some 500 guests at the dinner at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Clinton added, “Tom Harkin helped make sure that millions of Americans with disabilities could take their Medicaid with them to work, giving them the opportunity to contribute to society and lead more fulfilling lives.”
The gala was a feast for the senses, from the gourmet Italian food to the singers, musicians, and dancers who performed works that fit with the theme of the evening, “The Gift of Music.”
“Sounds that most of us take for granted are lost for these children at birth,” said Joseph Rienzi, the foundation's president and co-founder with his father, Mike Rienzi. His 7-year-old son, Michael Gianni, was diagnosed with profound hearing loss shortly after birth and received a cochlear implant at age 3. “Today,” said his father, “these children are being given back what is rightfully theirs: the gift of sound.”
AN AMERICAN DREAM
The Rienzi Gala demonstrated that implants do more than enrich the sensory world of the hearing-impaired. As Harkin emphasized, this tiny piece of technology is also an instrument of equal opportunity.
“My brother Frank lost his hearing at age 7,” he said. “He was ripped away from his family and sent across the state to what was then called the Iowa School for the Deaf and Dumb. He was told the most he could hope for was to become a baker, a cobbler, or a printer's assistant. Frank struggled to live independently. He was discriminated against. It shouldn't be that way in our society.
“I saw how Frank's disability limited his horizons,” Harkin continued. “I often wonder what my brother could have done with an implant—if he could have been mainstreamed at school and had lots of friends. We've come a long way thanks to people like Mike and Joseph Rienzi.”
The Rienzi family understands the power of the American dream. Born in Italy, Mike emigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1960 at age 14. The business he started in his basement as a young man has grown into the very successful Rienzi & Sons Foods and Rienzi Wines. In 2003, he created the Foundation for Cochlear Implant Research with his son Joseph.
“His story is such an inspiring one,” said New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, another honored guest. “Mike Rienzi is a self-made businessman who has given back to the community.”
Politicians weren't the only honorees at the gala. The Rienzi Foundation also recognized William H. Shapiro, MA, for his 20 years of research and clinical work with multi-channel cochlear implants for the past 20 years. Shapiro is a clinical associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology and assistant director of audiology at the New York University School of Medicine, as well as supervisor of audiology at the NYU Cochlear Implant Center.
By raising awareness and funding for the NYU Center, the Rienzi Foundation helps to ensure continued research, technological advances, and clinical services to people in need of implants.
IMPLANT RECIPIENTS SPEAK
When Frank Harkin was growing up deaf, cochlear implants were not even an option, his brother recalled. But as two other speakers clearly demonstrated, things are different now.
Chelsea Osterweil and Lauren Vergara, high school students with cochlear implants, shared with the audience the impact the technology has had on their lives. The two poised young women spoke with perfect clarity, a testament to how effective the implants can be.
“I attend a regular school,” Lauren said. “I don't even have a teacher's aide with me in the classroom anymore, which I needed with my hearing aid.”
Her friend Chelsea has benefited academically from the technology as well. “I can understand what my teachers are saying, even when they're facing the blackboard,” she said.
Their lives outside the classroom have been similarly transformed. Chelsea reported, “The implant has given me the opportunity to do the things that other teenagers do. I can even plug my iPod directly into my implant processor!”
Although Frank Harkin is no longer alive, he continues to inspire his brother to lead efforts to improve educational opportunities for children with disabilities.
For more information on the Rienzi Foundation or to make a donation, visit rienzifoundation.org or call 800/973-0622.