The ability to listen to the world-famous Voca People ensemble’s a cappella and beat-box repertoire of classical, pop and rock music was not taken for granted by the audience at the 21st anniversary gala of AV Israel, November 12 at the Jerusalem Theater.Proceeds of the benefit subsidize services for deaf and hearing-impaired babies and children provided by AV Israel (http://avisrael.org), a non-profit organization whose objective is mainstreaming these children – religious, secular and Haredi – into regular schools and society. “I see this event in Jerusalem as serving two purposes,” says AV Israel founder Elaine Matlow Tal-El, who won honorable mention in the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prizes in recognition of her accomplishments. “One is clearly fund - raising, because we get so little from the government. The other is raising awareness and breaking stereotypes. We always have our graduates hosting and speaking at the event so people don’t think deafness is sign language and silence. Our kids have limitations, but are more like regular kids than not. We want people to be aware of that.”“AV” stands for Auditory-Verbal, a parent-oriented approach that Tal-El introduced to Israel from her native Canada. AV encourages communication through listening and talking, rather than sign language or lip reading, for children capable of using hearing aids and/or cochlear implants. Tal-El’s twin daughters, now 25, have cochlear implants and both served in the IDF and are college students today.
The annual benefit also gives families a chance to celebrate the success of their children, and the evening has a purposely festive air. The Voca People, and last year the dance troupe Mayumana, were asked to entertain not only because their name recognition helps AV Israel raise money toward its NIS 2.6 million annual operating budget, but also because they are fun.“People are more apt to give to a cause that’s heartrending,” acknowledges Tal- El, “but we want to see smiles on faces. Part of the message is that a deaf child today is not a charity case to be mourned over. The results are incredible and the journey is amazing as you learn to appreciate what your kids can do.”Dena Lerman's son Aviel, 12, was diagnosed with hearing impairment as a baby. From the time he was 14 months until he was five years old, “we were totally embraced by AV, including helping us through the first stages of getting him hearing aids and receiving his first cochlear implant when he was two,” says Lerman. “Miriam Cohen, one of AV’s speech therapists, showed us how to play with him and enrich his life with language even before he had his surgery. I’m an occupational therapist and I know what it’s like to do therapy with kids, but the type of therapy done through AV served as a tremendous model for me because their vision is to inspire and empower parents to really help their children 24 hours a day, especially in language acquisition,” says Lerman.“My husband and I were active participants in Aviel’s therapy, and Miriam invited our two older daughters and his ganenet [preschool teacher] to be part of it too. They’re so successful that the kids age out pretty early, though we have gone back over the years. Aviel had his second implant four years ago and AV helped him integrate the use of the second technology. “More importantly, I’ve gotten guidance and ideas for Aviel. What’s unique is their dream that every hearing-challenged child can be integrated fully with their hearing peers, and they help make it happen while involving the en - tire family, even grandparents, as part of the AV experience.”Aviel is a pupil at the Sudbury Democratic School in Jerusalem. “People marvel how well he hears,” says his mother. “It’s not just about the training to help him speak better but also how to listen well in order to process auditory information. He does not rely on reading lips and that makes day-to-day life more manageable and productive.”IN 1999, AV Israel opened an education and speech-therapy center in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. The center now also offers hearing tests and hearing-aid assessments. Ten years later, the organization established a cochlear-implant rehab program at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. Second- and third-year students from the communications disorders programs at Kiryat Ono Academic College and Hadassah College intern at both sites, giving AV access to a potential pool of therapists trained in its approach. In 2013, another AV Israel branch was established in Sdot Negev, near Netivot, to bring testing and therapy services to the periphery in partnership with the regional council. Parents pay for speech therapy – most of the fee is reimbursed by the four na - tional health funds – and the audiology program is private. The program at Shaare Zedek is covered up front by the health funds. Since AV Israel must raise about 70 percent of its budget and most contributions come from overseas, the NIS 200-per-person annual benefit encourages local donations. Voca People owner/producer Leeorna Solomons says the ensemble receives many requests to perform on behalf of nonprofit organizations. Though it cannot honor every request, the mission of AV resonated. “We see AV Israel as a good thing we want our name to be related to,” says Solomons. “We’ve toured 32 countries and do volunteer work in almost every country we go to. For us it’s not a problem approaching any kind of audience, since our show does not rely on religion, age or culture. Anybody can enjoy the humor or the songs or the vibrations; there are so many levels and there is something for everybody.”
Cindy and Jamie Salter’s sons Yair, four, and Calev, two, aren’t quite old enough for a night out. The Jerusalem couple attended the gala in appreciation of what the organization has done for their two youngest children, both born with hearing impairment. Cindy Salter was pregnant with Calev when they learned that Yair would need a hearing aid. Feeling overwhelmed and confused by the information provided by their healthcare provider, she turned to AV Israel. “I wanted to send Yair to the same regular family daycare as his older brother,” she relates. “AV’s approach is that my child is normal and there is no reason that he can’t be mainstreamed with the help of hearing aids and speech therapy. I sat with Elaine and Miriam, and they said everything a parent wants to hear. You think your child is going to have all these problems and they say it doesn’t have to be that way.”Both boys have weekly appointments with AV speech therapist Debbie Margulis. “They love her and they love going,” says Salter. “It’s really a place where you’re understood and you make friends with people who have so much in common with you.”Yair, who may be getting a cochlear implant, did go to the same daycare as his older brother, and Calev goes there now. Today Yair attends a bilingual preschool where the head teacher had previously taught a client of AV Israel. “The teachers say they understand him fine. And this is all I wanted for him; he’s just one of the kids,” says Salter. “I wanted my sons not to need anything special that would separate them from other kids their age, and that’s what AV gave me.”