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Having trouble understanding someone in a face mask? Imagine if you’re deaf or hard of hearing. But the local Lions Club has a solution.

Face masks are helping keep us healthy during the COVID-19 crisis, but they also make it harder to carry on a conversation with others. It’s an inconvenience for those with perfect hearing, but it can make communication impossible for anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing and must read lips and interpret facial expressions to understand what is being said.

Fortunately, the Lions Club of Oviedo-Winter Springs knows just how to help. In fact, Lions Clubs have been serving those with visual and auditory impairments for decades. Lions District 35-O, which includes Lions Clubs throughout Central Florida, has mobilized its Hearing Program to produce free, custom face masks with clear panels to deaf and hard-of-hearing residents and their families. These masks, created with a fabric frame and a clear, anti-fog vinyl panel over the mouth, allow those with hearing impairments to see the faces of their conversation partners.

Dennis Dulniak, a retired UCF registrar and past president of the Oviedo-Winter Springs Lions Club, is heading up the effort. He currently serves as secretary of the Hearing Program, which helps those with hearing loss in dozens of counties across Central Florida obtain hearing tests and hearing aids.

A History of Service

“In 1925, eight years after the first Lions Clubs were formed, Helen Keller came to those clubs and asked them to be knights to the blind,” explains Dennis. “Helen was the first person who was deaf and blind to graduate from college. She became an international humanitarian.”

To honor Helen Keller, the Lions Club aids both the hearing and sight impaired to this day.

Dot Myers, a member of the local Lions Club, was instrumental in running the Hearing Program for many years. She recently saw a news segment about a mother who created masks with a see-through panel for her hard-of-hearing daughter.
“Dot is now 86 years old, legally blind, and still an inspiration,” says Dennis. “She asked me and Wendy Wilson, the current president of the Hearing Program, if we could do something. I said, ‘absolutely.’”

Oviedo-Winter Springs Lion Liz Savage was tasked with producing a prototype. After trying about six different variations of the concept, Liz found a formula that worked, and she was off and sewing.

“Providing these face masks and face shields in desperate times will contribute to the education, information, and communication for those who rely on facial cues,” says Wendy.

Dennis handles the process of getting the masks to those who need them most – from receiving the request forms to distribution, handling, record keeping, and the mailing out of the masks. He’s also secured a few more seamstresses: a retired secretary from Hagerty High, a wife of a Lion, and a faculty member at UCF. By July, the crew had sewn and distributed more than 500 clear face masks.

The project is just getting started. The group purchased enough anti-fog, two-sided vinyl from a supplier in Wisconsin to create more than 14,000 masks.

The face masks serve a need for many seniors as well as young kids with hearing impairments.

“I’m amazed at the number of requests I’m getting now from parents of kids with cochlear implants who have already been labeled hearing impaired and are wearing hearing aids,” says Dennis. “I’m blown away.”

So Many Ways to Help

Erin Kimball, who has a teenager with moderate hearing loss, thinks the masks are a wonderful idea.

“Having access to these face masks with windows will be so helpful to people who rely on reading lips to understand what is being said,” she says. 

The masks also assist those who don’t have hearing loss.

“These would be great for teachers so all students can understand them better, whether in class or during online lessons,” Erin adds. “The masks are also helpful for doctors and dentists so patients don’t miss important information.”

Dorothy Lefford, with Easter Seals North East Central Florida, received some masks from the Lions Club to use in her work with autistic children.

“The masks are wonderful and so useful for our clients to see facial expressions,” she says. “This is critical when working with children with autism. Our speech clinicians were very excited to have the masks, as this enables ease with modeling speech sounds.”

Miriam Peck also received masks to help her daughter, who has Down syndrome and is hearing impaired.

“I am so grateful,” she says. “I’m also a special-needs teacher for elementary school, so the masks will have a dual use.”
While the Lions Club has received requests for clear masks from larger groups (like medical offices), Dennis says the local Club’s goal is to provide masks for families, friends, and associates of the deaf and hearing impaired in our community.
“We can’t meet every need,” he explains. “We’d love to, but we’re a bunch of volunteers that are primarily doing this for families.”

Based on feedback, Dennis has even modified the initial face mask design.

“People who wear hearing aids tell us the traditional elastic strap that goes behind the ears can dislodge a hearing aid, causing the wearer to lose it,” says Dennis. “A grandmother challenged me to put tie-backs on some of the masks, and it solved the problem.”

Not only are the clear masks filling a need in the community, the project has given Dennis a newfound purpose in his life.
“It’s a venture that I never dreamed was possible, and it’s a godsend to me,” he says. “This is a labor of love – there’s such a need in this community.”

Those who could benefit from a clear face mask can email Dennis for a request form at CentralFloridaLionsHearing@gmail.com. Those who wish to help can email him, too. Dennis is looking for more volunteers who can sew or help with office tasks. Financial donations are also appreciated, to purchase raw materials for the masks.
“The Lions Clubs never charge for our services,” Dennis affirms, “but we do take donations.”

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