Mike Wheeler high-fives a young Peruvian boy after the youth gets a hearing aid.
SEMINOLE – Mike Wheeler is a man who likes to help people, people who don’t have the means to help themselves, and he does it all over the world.
Wheeler is a licensed hearing aid specialist and is nationally board certified in hearing instrument sciences. He sells Audibel devices in Seminole and surrounding towns and counties.
But it isn’t close to home where Wheeler’s philanthropy usually comes into play; it is in places such as Peru, Mexico and the Philippines.
Wheeler spends weeks traveling and bringing hearing aids to people in those countries. It means he’s away from his family and business for long stretches of time. He does it, he said, because he can.
“Everybody genuinely wants to do something good and feel like you can make a difference,” he said. “The average person just can’t get up and go somewhere to help others. I happen, by luck, to have something in my profession and a company that has given me the tools and the opportunity to do this.”
Wheeler said going to a place and providing hearing aids is a time consuming and somewhat complicated event.
“First we have to go into a community and form a relationship with the people,” he said. “Then we find the children who need help and do tests, after that we fit them. Ear molds have to be made. After that there is the follow-up. Someone has to keep an eye on the patients and make sure batteries are replaced and proper maintenance is done and so on.”
Often, said Wheeler, he encounters people who know nothing about hearing aids at all.
“In some parts of Africa their world is only as big as their eyes can see,” he said. “It is a tiny world they live in. Show them a phone and they are amazed. Hearing aids and batteries are foreign to them. You can’t imagine the look on their face when a child hears for the first time; the responses and expressions are quite something.”
While it would be somewhat difficult, if not impossible, to speak to a small child in Africa who is able to hear for the first time, one can get a sense of what it must be like from a local patient of Wheeler’s.
Rene Piche, 78, of Treasure Island, has had his hearing restored and he can only imagine what it must be like for a small child overseas.
“That has to be unbelievable for a child,” he said. “The world sounded like something else to me. It must be incredible for a child 3 or 4 or 5 years old.”
Piche said before he had his hearing restored he was constantly frustrated with what was going on around him.
“If you go out to a meeting or a reunion, you only hear half of the stories. You really don’t hear at all.”
Wheeler got involved in overseas work by knowing Bill Austin, a man in his 70s, who started a foundation to help the less fortunate overseas. The Starkey Hearing Foundation is now involved in Operation Change and Wheeler said Austin was a role model for him.
“He spends 300 days a year in third world countries. I got involved and do five or six missions a year both in the United States and abroad.”
This year has turned into a busy one for Wheeler, who brings his daughter Juliet, 20, with him on most missions.
“Since September with my daughter I’ve gone to Peru, then in December the Philippines, in January the Dominican Republic and in April we went to the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Closer to home, in February, Wheeler did what he calls the Super Bowl Mission. He went to New York City and helped inner-city kids who can’t afford hearing aids.
None of this is cheap. While the people who get the help don’t pay anything, it does cost to conduct a mission. Wheeler said there are sponsors involved and often he pays for a mission himself. The West Bank trip cost $125,000, the Super Bowl Mission, $75,000.
That brings back the question: why does he do it? Why does he take so much time and money to help people he’s never met and will likely never meet again? Wheeler said it is simple.
“It is almost selfish,” he said. “The reality of it is I need these missions way more than they need me. They do way more for me than I ever do for them; the people have done great things for me. When you finish a mission and don’t get choked up, then you are not human.”