Now Hear This: Spotlight on Sound Start Babies Foundation

Foundation assists infants with hearing loss during crucial early years of development.

Children reading a picture book together in one of the three Sound Start Babies nursery rooms.
Children reading a picture book together in one of the three Sound Start Babies nursery rooms.
Photo Courtesy of Kayley Mayer

When Madison resident Jessica Griffin’s son Ian was diagnosed at birth with a profound hearing loss, she didn’t know where to turn. “We, like a lot of families, had no history of hearing loss in our family,” says Griffin. “We came home from the hospital and were in denial.”

In the United States, at least two out of every 1,000 children are born with some degree of hearing loss. Newborns are screened shortly after birth. Those identified as having a hearing loss are best served with an early-intervention program. But in New Jersey, state funds are available only to special-needs children starting at age three—too late to reach infants during the early, critical years of brain development.

Mountain Lakes-based Sound Start Babies Foundation (originally the Lake Drive Foundation) was founded in 1996 to help pick up the costs of services the state doesn’t cover, regardless of a family’s financial situation. The foundation has provided services to more than 1,500 infants and toddlers in 11 counties; it is targeting South Jersey for further expansion. The organization’s annual operating budget is $600,000; the state reimburses about one-third of that.

Sound Start Babies began with an early-intervention program that provides home visits and therapies. In 2010, it added a full-day nursery program for children with hearing loss—the only one of its kind in the state. It serves both children with normal hearing and kids with hearing loss in equal numbers.

The babies with hearing loss have access to a team of speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, audiologists and teachers of the deaf to address their individual needs. Staff is trained to assist families with hearing aids, cochlear implants and other technologies.

Sound Start Babies took on Ian Griffin’s case when he was a few months old. Ian received cochlear implants to assist him in hearing sounds and spoken language by his first birthday. At 18 months, he was enrolled in the nursery program. He turned five in August and will start kindergarten next year. “Once your child enters the program, a burden is released because you know they’re in the right place,” says Griffin, who is now president of the foundation.

“You really can change a child’s life,” says founder Laura McKirdy. “This isn’t putting a Band-Aid on something and making it look good. We are giving children the ability to communicate and become self-sustaining, contributing members of society.”

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