Happy Birthday, HLAA-Whatcom County Chapter

smiling woman holding crystal award.
Erlene VanDerMeer accepts the Chapter on a Mission award on behalf of HLAA-Whatcom County in 2022.

This September is a time of celebration for the HLAA-Whatcom County chapter as it marks its 19th birthday. It is also a time to reflect on and appreciate the Chapter’s accomplishments.

Bert and Charlene begin the journey in 2004

After experiencing firsthand what a support and educational group could do for others, co-founders Bert Lederer and Charlene MacKenzie were inspired to start a local chapter in Bellingham in 2004. The chapter joined a family of 23 other chapters in Washington State at that time.

Guided by the HLAA New Chapter Guidelines, Bert and Char personally invited a handful of people in 2004 to join them in taking a more active and informed role in managing their shared hearing loss. Together with resources from Western Washington University (WWU) Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, the new chapter created programs of trustworthy information aimed at understanding, treating, and managing a hearing disability. The opportunity for fellowship and support flourished in the search for meaning within an affirming, accepting environment.

Today, the HLAA family in our state has dramatically changed, with chapters folding or being replaced by other types of support, such as HOPE online meetings. However, HLAA-Whatcom continues to thrive in the traditional format. Members can look back on nineteen years of continuous monthly meetings: Twelve times a year on Saturday mornings, including almost three years online via Zoom during the COVID pandemic.



Meeting longstanding needs of people with hearing loss

People with hearing loss all know the feeling of being alone with this disability – undiagnosed, unrecognized, and misunderstood, unaddressed and underserved, let alone uninsured! But the HLAA mission emphasizing education, information, and support promptly began to meet this new chapter members’ needs that had been long unfulfilled.

Soon the Whatcom Chapter’s programming expanded from WWU resources to local and Seattle-based cochlear implant surgeons, audiologists, and counselors as speakers. As assistive listening technology continued to evolve, the Whatcom Chapter became a very important source of education and hands-on assistance in adopting new tools as they became available. Through the years, members and their families have provided testimonials and shared concerns, insights, successes, and their improved quality of life, thanks to their association with the group. These trends continue to this day.

Turning outward toward advocacy

As the Whatcom Chapter grew and members became more aware of the high incidence of untreated hearing loss in their area, advocacy became a more meaningful part of their mission. Chapter leadership propelled action-oriented projects as the chapter’s inward focus turned toward a more outward dynamic, extending to others beyond the chapter’s membership.

Having benefitted personally and learning what can be done to improve their lives, chapter members also reach out and help others: inviting friends to attend chapter meetings, mentoring, leading hearing loss management workshops, working at health fairs, and speaking to groups and organizations. 

Whatcom County loopers build hearing-friendly places

Some member volunteers have devoted many hours to the group’s very successful Let’s Loop Bellingham initiative. Many hearing loops are now helping people hear in places that were previously not hearing accessible. For example, Anacortes and Burlington libraries, Anacortes Senior Center, Oak Harbor Presbyterian Church, Bellingham City Council, and the Whidbey Playhouse all have hearing loops, thanks to these hearing loop advocates.

The Whatcom Chapter enjoyed their most recent looping project aboard the looped Victoria Star (San Juan Cruise Lines) for a dinner cruise around Bellingham Bay. Feeling included and able to hear and understand the tour guide was a most welcome success. And the fellowship was so gratifying! 

A special honor: The Founders Fund

A smiling gentlemen with glasses hugs a cattledog in an orange vest.

Prior to the passing of Bert Lederer in 2021, HLAA Whatcom members honored him and Charlene by creating The Founders Fund, which offers financial assistance to post-secondary education students who have succeeded despite their hearing loss. In 2024, the chapter will celebrate their first recipient’s university graduation.  Coincidentally — or perhaps not — this outstanding young person aspires to be an audiologist.

Knowing and personally feeling the joy of what can be done to manage hearing loss together with wanting to share that with others have motivated and inspired Chapter leadership and members to reach out in many ways. The rewarding result is that advocacy both excites and energizes them, enriching their fellowship and helping their chapter grow.

What can other chapters and advocates learn?

What to learn from the Whatcom County experience?  There is great power in helping yourself and others learn about living well with hearing loss.  To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, the pain (of hearing loss) is inevitable; suffering (from it) is optional.  Working together we can all improve our quality of life. But it does take work, so volunteering to be part of the solution is the most important first step.  The Whatcom County Chapter has succeeded because its members have done the work over the last 19 years. They intend to do even more in the upcoming decades.

Thank you to Charlene MacKenzie and Larry Wonnacott for writing this article.

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