By Stacy Wiedmaier

Due to their chosen career paths, Rancho Mirage residents Joe and Pat Manhart have experienced more small miracles in their everyday lives than most witness in a lifetime.

As the newly retired, previous owners of two Coachella Valley Advanced Hearing Systems locations, Pat has fitted hearing impaired children and adults with custom hearing aids for 52 years. She and her husband now travel the globe with the Starkey Hearing Foundation to alter the lives of the hearing impaired forever.

The couple took their first mission trip with Starkey in the mid-90s and have since traveled to 16 countries where they watch the hearing impaired, from age three months to 102, experience sound for the first time in their lives.

“I always say, ‘I wish I had a nickel for every time I have taken an ear impression,’” Pat said laughing. “I started out going door-to-door offering free hearing tests. Who would have thought I would still be in this business years later? I really loved it from the beginning.”

Pat, a mother of three, was working long hours at a laundry mat in 1959 when she happened to meet a gentleman who owned a hearing aid business. After chatting about experiences in their respective industries, they decided to literally “trade businesses.”

Joe owned, and later sold his business building custom pools and spas. After meeting on a golf course 22 years ago in California’s Central Valley, the couple tied the knot and Joe joined his new bride in the hearing aid industry.

“He caught on so quick and had a natural knack for it,” Pat said. “We both love helping people and seeing results. A hearing aid can really change people’s lives.”

According to the Starkey Hearing Foundation, hearing loss affects one in 10 Americans, or 63 million children worldwide, yet many don’t have access to hearing devices that can help them. The Foundation fits and gives away more than 100,000 hearing aids annually, and as a member of President Clinton’s Global Initiative, it has pledged to fit 1 million hearing aids this decade.

The Manhart’s have traveled with the Starkey Foundation to underprivileged nations such as Ecuador, El Salvador, India, Egypt, Africa and China. A team of Starkey volunteer audiologists travel to each country in order to take ear impressions before the foundation creates the specialized hearing aids in the United States.

The Manhart’s participate in the subsequent trip where they bring completed devices to those in need, along with a one year supply of batteries for each recipient. The group holds outreaches in public places like schools, hospitals or hotels. All analog hearing aids are provided free of charge through the Starkey Foundation and an on-site team comprised of locals is organized in each country to provide necessary follow-up assistance.

The group set a record when they fit 1,200 hearing impaired individuals with devices in India- in one day. During a 15-day trip to China, they visited three cities and fitted 6,500 people, nearly running out of supplies. On average, 70 percent of those receiving hearing aids are children, while the remaining 30 percent are adults. The majority of recipients have never heard sound before.

When turning on the hearing aids for children, Joe said, “it’s like throwing a switch. You just see their whole being light up.”

“We met a 72-year-old man in China that brought his 102-year-old father to receive a hearing aid,” Joe said. “His father had never heard anything in his lifetime. We’ve seen so many different emotions during our work. This man laughed and cried at the same time.”

The Foundation partners with deaf schools in each country to inform residents of services coming to their area. In many countries, deaf children are institutionalized and forgotten by parents who cannot provide for them.

“Pat and Joe have been two of Starkey Hearing Foundation’s strongest supporters for years and are hearing angels in the truest sense,” said Brady Forseth, executive director of Starkey. “They have personally touched the lives of hundreds of people and reconnected them to their families and communities through the gift of hearing. Our founder Bill Austin says, ‘Alone we can’t do much. Together we can change the world.’ Pat and Joe’s tireless commitment to reflecting caring into the lives of everyone they meet helps make that a reality.”

Pat said one of her favorite experiences during an outreach includes a time in Africa when the teams were fitting kids with dark colored hearing aids to better match their skin color. But, they said they wanted the beige colored ones instead so everyone they knew would notice their new “accessory.”

She laughed about another joyous moment in the Dominican Republic when the children’s bus driver told them at the end of the day how the drive to the facility was quiet as could be. But on the way back, after the children had received their new hearing aids, it was so noisy with sounds of all types that he couldn’t hear himself think.

The Manhart’s have taken several of their family members along on Starkey mission trips, as they are also in the hearing aid industry. Their 10-year-old great granddaughter is already eager to learn the ins and outs of the business, they said.

Although working with Starkey to provide hearings aids is their first passion and expertise, the Manhart’s also support more than a dozen Coachella Valley charities including Boys & Girls Clubs, Act for MS, Martha’s Village and Shelter from the Storm.

The couple is heavily involved in the Rancho Mirage Chamber of Commerce and has received multiple awards, including being named the Rancho Mirage Distinguished Citizens of the Year in 2008.

“The Manhart’s are good citizens – not only of Rancho Mirage, but of the world,” said Stuart Ackley, Rancho Mirage Chamber president. “The Chamber honored the couple as Distinguished Citizens several years ago for their mission trips across the world with the Starkey Hearing Foundation.  They have very large hearts and live for these mission trips – for the joy of bringing hearing to children who have never heard a laugh or their own mother’s voices.  They are both great people who are widely loved and admired in our community – who strive to make the world a better place.”

To learn more about the organization, visit www.starkeyhearingfoundation.org.