The Hearing House’s newest Board member is corporate strategist Willa Hand, mum to two young boys – eight-year-old Zach and six-year-old Emerson.
When Emerson was 18 months old, he contracted bacterial meningitis and became profoundly deaf as a result. Prior to that, Willa didn’t have any personal connection with deafness, and very little awareness of what options were open to Emerson and her family in the deaf world.
Both she and her husband felt it was important that Emerson learnt to walk in both worlds, and to be able to communicate with his brother.
“We chose the cochlear pathway because we felt that, for Emerson, being able to access sound through cochlear presented an incredible opportunity,” Willa says.
The family was referred to The Hearing House by Starship Children’s Hospital with the results of Emerson’s hearing test. He received his cochlear implants shortly before his second birthday.
“We’ve been on a wonderful journey with The Hearing House,” says Willa. “From the very beginning, they’ve involved us in the ways we can help kids like Emerson acquire language.
“We couldn’t have done it without them. We didn’t know anything at the start. That early contact with habilitation specialists is critical.
“I feel very lucky that the people we’ve come into contact with at The Hearing House have all been incredible. They’ve worked with us as a family.
“It’s made both Emerson and us stronger. It’s a privilege to walk in both worlds.”
“My family was reflected back at me.”
Five years ago, Willa went on a camp organised by the Auckland Parents of Deaf Children, a support group for families and whānau with deaf children living in the Auckland region.
“For the first time, my family was reflected back at me,” she says. “I realised how we can support deaf children to be equal in terms of language acquisition.
Willa joined the group’s committee soon after attending the camp, and has been President for the past three years.
“So much work goes into supporting kids in the early years,” she says. “Unless you’re doing it yourself, you have no idea what it takes. Being able to access language is huge.”
Willa has also joined other parents of deaf children and young Deaf adults in webinars run by Deaf Aotearoa for the International Week of Deaf People, discussing their hopes and dreams for the future and the role NZSL plays in their daily lives.
This year, Emerson is going into Year 2 at his local primary school in South Auckland which Willa says offers a very supportive and caring environment.
“Emerson is deaf 100% of the time,” explains Willa. “Through the use of the amazing cochlear implant technology he can access sound, but he doesn’t hear the way we can hear.
“His brain has to work overtime to digest signals and turn them into sound. Background noise makes things tricky, and adds to his workload.
“He does incredibly well,” says Willa. “He’s worked out how best to communicate to get his needs met and we use NZSL as well.
“Cochlear kids are so capable. It’s vital that we set them up for success – whatever that looks like.”
Willa, who has a long-running career in corporate culture and engagement, joined The Hearing House board in December last year, committed to advocating on behalf of parents of deaf children.
“I’m keen to help close the gap in navigating how the system works - it’s easy to miss many parts of the puzzle when you’re caught up in your own journey,” she says.
“As Board members, I believe our role is to provide good governance and direction for Claire (CEO Dr Claire Green) and her leadership team.
“You can see the great work that Claire has done to bring a strategy into play at The Hearing House,” Willa says.
“We have a great opportunity to take that strategy and execute it in a way that’s going to achieve better outcomes for kiritaki (clients), their whānau, and all supporters of The Hearing House.”