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11.03.2017

Teen Philanthropist Seeks to ‘Repair the World’

The national spotlight continues to shine on Miami Beach teen Oliver Stern and his commitment to making sure no child is ever without sound. Stern was recently interviewed by the Nickelodeon network after being named a recipient of the 2017 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award, for his program, Our Abilities. The award, given to just 15 teens nationwide, recognizes Jewish teens who are tackling global issues and creating lasting change by demonstrating the spirit of tikkun olam, a central Jewish value meaning “to repair the world.”

Stern and his family flew to San Francisco in August to receive the prestigious award, which comes with a $36,000 cash prize. He is donating $31,000 of those funds — along with funds he raised for his Bar Mitzvah project — to Oliver’s Hearing Aid Bank, a cause he created in partnership with the University of Miami Children’s Hearing Program, the pediatric division of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. The remaining $5,000 will be donated to his temple to assist with disability inclusion services. The news caught the attention of Nickelodeon, which is interested in doing a story on the young philanthropist.

Just 17 years old, yet mature beyond his years, Stern has been finding ways to contribute to the community for a large portion of his life. At age 10, when most kids would find it intimidating to speak in front of their classmates, Stern spoke before the Florida Senate on behalf of auditory-oral education at the Debbie School, part of the Miller School Department of Pediatrics’ Mailman Center for Child Development. That was where Oliver began his schooling, from ages 3 to 6, before being mainstreamed from the Debbie School’s program for the deaf and hard of hearing.

As a fifth grader at North Beach Elementary, Stern, along with his teachers, created a program to raise awareness of various disabilities and how they affect people’s lives. His program, called “One World Many Abilities,” gives elementary school students an opportunity to experience what life is like when dealing with paralysis or loss of sight or hearing.

“In fifth grade, most kids aren’t really thinking about disabilities or the challenges they present,” Stern says. “During our three-day program, they hear from speakers and engage in simulations that help them understand both what it’s like to be disabled and how to approach people with disabilities.”

To date, more than 900 fifth-grade students at North Beach Elementary have participated in the program, and Stern is looking for ways to engage other schools, as well.

Stern knows something about disabilities. He was born deaf, and with a cleft lip and palate, and has undergone 23 surgeries during the past 13 years. Hearing loss is the most common birth defect, and 90 percent of children with hearing loss are born to hearing parents who have no idea how to manage this emotional journey.

Rather than let his disabilities impose limits on his life, however, Stern has embraced them. A junior at Ransom Everglades School, he is a nationally ranked debater and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He also was appointed by a Miami Beach commissioner to serve on the city’s Disability Access Committee, which reviews plans and makes recommendations on how they can offer better access for the disabled.

Yet, despite his busy schedule, Stern somehow finds time to make a difference. He started the Debbie School alumni association — “Friends of the Debbie School” — to generate alumni and legislative support for the school.

For his Bar Mitzvah project in 2013, Stern raised more than $50,000 to launch Oliver’s Hearing Aid Bank, which provides loaner hearing devices to children with hearing loss while they wait for a repair, replacement or insurance approval. Physicians and audiologists at the Children’s Hearing Program donate their time, and unwanted or surplus hearing aids are collected, checked, and reprogrammed for use by qualifying patients. To date, Oliver’s Hearing Aid Bank has provided hearing devices and services to 200 children.

Pediatric audiologist Kari Morgenstein, Au.D., assistant professor at the Miller School and director of the Children’s Hearing Program, says Stern’s support of the program has been a real gift.

“There is no better feeling than to be able to help our families who need it, and have the confidence as a provider that no child will be without sound for an extended period of time,” she says.

Stern himself wore hearing aids for the first few years of his life until, at age four, he received cochlear implants — sophisticated electronic devices that bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve to produce signals that the brain interprets as sound. He credits these with giving him the gift of hearing and allowing him to become the confident public speaker he is today.

Stern’s mother, U.S. District Court Judge Beth Bloom, J.D. ’88, says she is proud of what her son has accomplished.

“Oliver has had significant challenges in his life and has spent so much time in doctors’ offices,” Bloom said. “When he says that the UM Miller School of Medicine is like a second family to him, he really means it. It means a great deal to us, too.”

Stern is using his $31,000 Diller prize as a matching grant to encourage additional donations to Oliver’s Hearing Aid Bank, for a total goal of $62,000. And that’s on top of the more than $50,000 he already donated to the cause from his Bar Mitzvah project.

Stern’s father, Lyle, president of Koniver Stern Group, envisions a national footprint for Oliver’s Hearing Aid Bank.

“I think an amazing result would be if, in the next 10 years, every major city in the U.S. had something like Oliver’s Hearing Aid Bank, where more kids could be helped,” he said.

If Oliver Stern has anything to do with it, there can be no doubt it will happen.

To support the Children’s Hearing Program, please visit uhealthchp.com or call 305-243-8517.

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