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A seed that grew into a forest

Published: April 29th, 2016

Category: Homepage

In 2003, Alice Holmes, Ph.D., a professor in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, five UF doctor of audiology students and Holmes’ husband and two teenagers arrived in Merida in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. They had partnered with a local hearing health advocacy organization to perform free hearing screenings for Yucatan residents during UF’s spring break.

“I was scared to death,” Holmes admits. “I didn’t know what we were doing. I never would have dreamed it would have come to what it has come to today.”

Audiology student Brooke Lewandowski performs a hearing test of a child during Project Yucatan 2016.

Audiology student Brooke Lewandowski performs a hearing test of a child during Project Yucatan 2016.

That first year the group saw 68 people in a week. During the 2016 trip, 38 students and faculty members from the UF audiology program, the UF College of Pharmacy and the University of Oklahoma audiology program, screened more than 1,100 people. Yucatan’s department of health and families and students from Merida’s Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán’s medical and dental programs joined in to provide diabetes, blood pressure and craniofacial screenings.

Throughout the years, the Project Yucatan team has screened 12,000 Yucatan residents and provided thousands of hearing aids and hearing aid batteries. The Asociacion Yucateca Pro Dificiente Auditivo, or AYPRODA, the local non-profit UF partners with to coordinate screenings and provide follow-up hearing health care during the rest of the year, has made major advances in influencing health policy. They successfully lobbied Mexican national and state governments to enact universal newborn hearing screenings throughout the country and screenings for all children entering school in the Yucatan.

“I was interviewed by a newspaper in the Yucatan about why we come down,” Holmes said. “I said, ‘We planted a seed in 2003. It grew into a tree and now it’s a forest.’”

That seed started with Christi Barbee, Au.D., then a UF audiology student. Barbee was interested in learning more about attitudes and treatment of hearing loss in other cultures. Barbee and Holmes met with Allan Burns, Ph.D., then a professor in UF’s department of anthropology, who specializes in Mayan cultures in Mexico and Central America, to explore ideas for an international trip. Burns has a home in Merida and one of his neighbors is Jorge Canto Herrera, a genetics professor who, along with other parents of children with hearing loss, founded AYPRODA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting early hearing detection and treatment. At that time, Herrera had just received a small grant to test the hearing of children in rural villages, but he didn’t have the equipment or technical expertise to conduct the tests. As Holmes says, “the stars were aligned” for UF’s partnership with AYPRODA.

Project Yucatan leaders cut the ribbon on renovations to AYPRODA's offices. From left, Dr. Christi Barbee, Jorge Canto Herrera, Naicy Nájesa Solis, Dr. Alice Holmes, Dr. Scott Griffiths and Danielina Vales Gamboa.

Project Yucatan leaders cut the ribbon on renovations to AYPRODA’s offices. From left, Dr. Christi Barbee, Jorge Canto Herrera, Naicy Nájesa Solis, Dr. Alice Holmes, Dr. Scott Griffiths and Danielina Vales Gamboa.

“UF, and more recently the University of Oklahoma, have been a miracle for AYPRODA,” Herrera said. “This work would not have been possible without the intervention of faculty and students from those universities. Working with them has also given AYPRODA access to academic and professional elements that have helped us learn how to interact with other institutions, foundations and agencies within and outside Mexico.”

During a Project Yucatan spring break trip, audiology students and faculty members provide hearing screenings for adults and children in rural and urban locations. Working with UF pharmacy students, they also offer counseling regarding earwax management, infections of the outer ear, fungus, hearing protection and hearing loss. AYPRODA follows up with individuals identified as having a hearing problem to make sure they receive further testing and health care.

“Our students become better clinicians and I think even more importantly, they come back better people,” Holmes said. “Every student who has gone down has been affected positively by the trip.”

Third-year audiology student Jennifer Aranda-Cordero, served as a 2016 Project Yucatan troop leader, along with Brooke Lewandowski. Project Yucatan is one of the reasons why Aranda-Cordero chose the UF audiology program and she believes the experience has given her more confidence in her clinical skills.

“As a student, the first step is getting past that confidence barrier,” she said. “With Project Yucatan you don’t have the time to be shy about it, you have to step up and do your job.”

Barbee became part of Project Yucatan again several years after her UF graduation when Holmes and Scott Griffiths, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, asked Barbee to participate as a supervisor. Now an assistant professor of audiology at the University of Oklahoma, Barbee has been bringing a group of her students on the Project Yucatan trip since 2012.

“We occasionally get to see kids who we identified with hearing loss from the first year or two of Project Yucatan,” Barbee said. “To see how well they’re functioning with their hearing aids is very rewarding.”