LOGAN -- Kate Powell watched her professors and fellow students fit small hearing aids into the ears of 35 South Vietnamese children, most of them preschoolers.
Then Powell, a North Ogden native, watched the youngsters' heads whip around as they heard incidental noise for the first time.
"Their eyes got really big, and they looked around when they heard little sounds," Powell said. "They didn't know the world was so noisy. They were used to having to concentrate to hear anything. To see them turn around when a motorbike drove by was cool to watch.
"Then I saw the tears in their parents' eyes. Those parents knew being able to hear would make a huge difference in their childrens' futures. The parents got emotional, then we all got emotional."
Powell was one of four Utah State University graduate students who traveled with two USU instructors and 13 additional deaf-education teachers as part of a monthlong humanitarian project. Besides providing hearing aids, the specialists reprogrammed hearing aids children owned that were not working well. The group also provided specialized training in audiology and deaf education to 90 teachers from 35 schools and early intervention centers throughout South Vietnam.
"This trip was a great chance for me to take what I have been learning about for the past few years and share that knowledge with others," said Powell, who received a USU master's degree in the Listening and Spoken Language Deaf Education program.
"The people we worked with over the course of the program were so happy and grateful to have the chance to learn what we had to teach, and it was a really wonderful way for me to put a cap on my own educational experience."
The trip, organized by the Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss, took the volunteers to the Thuan An Center, just outside Ho Chi Minh City. USU assistant professor Lauri Nelson, of Bountiful, said the need for help was great.
"They don't have access to the technology, and there aren't government-supported programs," Nelson said of conditions in South Vietnam. "For most parents, the cost of hearing aids is out of reach. And they don't have access to training there."
Deaf and hard-of-hearing children are taught in classes with their hearing peers, but teachers generally don't have the training needed to help their special-needs students, Nelson said. Not all teachers are fluent signers.
"The purpose of our program is to provide the technology and supplies, and to train teachers. We trained 90 teachers, 18 audiologists and 55 families. The goal is for students to develop listening and communication skills," she said.
The biggest impact will come from training the South Vietnamese professionals, Nelson said. The knowledge will allow locals to make ongoing improvements rather than just rely on visiting outsiders for help.
Students who can't hear or communicate well often struggle to learn and develop relationships. Once they leave school, their lives are isolated and their social and employment prospects are few. Improved hearing and communication skills can allow the hard-of-hearing to have much happier, more socially integrated and productive lives.
Nelson hopes to return with the next visiting expert group this winter.
"We are hoping to have several hundred hearings aids when we go in February," she said.
As for Powell, she'll be busy teaching preschool within the school system. She is weighing a couple of job offers.
But she will always treasure her Vietnam trip memories.
"It was thrilling to see the look the children got in their eyes," Powell said. "Another favorite memory has to be singing karaoke with the teachers and parents. It's big in their culture. We went back and forth between languages. It was the Fourth of July, so I got up with a group to sing 'Yankee Doodle.' I thought we were a little ridiculous, but they seemed to enjoy it."
Powell also took away a lesson, she said.
"It was a very poor area, and I felt blessed to come back with everything we have here," Powell said. "I missed my washer and dryer. They live a more simple life, but for the most part, their needs are met. It made me realize how many things we have and use every day that we don't necessarily need. They live frugally, with hardly anything, but they are happy people."