Take a minute. Shut your eyes. What can you hear? What do those sounds invoke in you? Now imagine not being able to hear or to have difficulty hearing. How different would your life be?

Hearing is one of life’s essential elements for most. However, within the Indigenous population, child and infant hearing problems are far higher than the national average. Almost 1 in 5 Indigenous children have a hearing issue, which can have a devastating, lifelong impact. Fear not, help is on the way, and their chosen mode of transport is a bus.

Earbus Foundation of Western Australia is a charity which is helping to reduce the hearing problems faced by First Nations children. Paul Higginbotham, a former Teacher of the Deaf, who founded the organisation in 2014, has worked tirelessly, along with his co-founder Audiologist Lara Shur, to create a program that is free and also able to reach even the most remote places in the state.

Child having hearing checked
Child having hearing checked

Servicing the state

The Earbus provides hearing checks for children in day-cares, playgroups and primary schools around WA. Earbus covers the majority of the state, providing ear health services throughout the Kimberley, Pilbara, Goldfields, South West and Perth Metro areas.

Western Australia is a large state and coverage of it can be a resource intensive task. Getting out and about involves a range of transport options, from troop carriers to purpose-built buses, of which the organisation has three.

Doing work in remote communities comes with its own set of challenges, and Mr Higginbotham said that all the effort is worth it when the impact that the work is having is so noticeable.

“When you see those [children’s] bright eyes and smiles you are hooked. We couldn’t be doing anything more important” Mr Higginbotham said.

Earbus’ work has been built on trust, something that Mr Higginbotham does not take lightly.

“You need to be trusted, once you have that trust you are in. [The trust] is really important to the work we do.”

“When we first visit a community we often have Elders who sit on the bus for a few visits, watching and making sure that all the children are looked after.”

“[The communities] need to know that we care for the kids and with that trust comes acceptance. They need to know we are there for the right reasons, and we aren’t just going to leave after one year” Mr Higginbotham explained.

Somewhat paradoxically, the Chief Executive said that listening to the communities is the most important part of acceptance.

“Listening and learning in this first instance is the most important part in our success.”

Caris Jalla, Program Manager for South West and Metropolitan Outreach, emphasised that the work Earbus does requires a large amount of enthusiasm.

“It’s a huge task to service the whole state.” Ms Jalla said

The Earbus program is on an invitational basis, meaning they work only in places that they have been requested to attend. However once word spread about the amazing work the team is doing, it doesn’t take long for other institutions around the same area to extend Earbus an invitation.

“We mainly go where we are invited. We only engage with schools where we are wanted”

“We were invited to a school in the South West, Djidi djidi, and from there other schools got in contact. It has a flow on effect” Ms Jalla explained

Driving force

When asked about what makes him so passionate about the Earbus program, Mr Higginbotham said that it was the Indigenous families that inspire him to keep doing the work. Mr Higginbotham has high praise for the families of the children who are treated by Earbus.

“It is definitely the kids and the families. No question. I have a deep admiration especially for the Aboriginal women in these communities.” Mr Higginbotham said

In delivering the service, Mr Higginbotham acknowledged the important role that local Aboriginal Medical Services play in supporting the regional work of Earbus and helping to ensure continuity of care for patients between Earbus visits.

Child using audiology equipment
Child using audiology equipment

Growth and Development

The work that Earbus is doing is on the rise. Earbus is set to deliver their program to a record number of children this year, and expansion is necessary to affect change based on growing need.

“We are set to treat over 4,000 Aboriginal and educationally at-risk kids this year. We have 70 sites and growing,” Mr Higginbotham proudly illuminates.

As a charity, the expansion of their services is predicated on funding. The program relies on funding to maintain its programs. On how they fund their ambitious programs, Ms Jalla, explained that they have a mix of donors.

“We have some federal funding, but any regional programs are state funded. We also have some private philanthropic donations.” Ms Jalla said.

“The more funding we have, the more sites we can visit and the more children we can help. If we can secure the bus for the Pilbara we can access more sites and provide care to many more children.”

The charity is in the running for up to $50,000 in grants as part of the Sunsuper Dreams for a Better World community grants program. To help Earbus in their dream of building a bus to service more of the Pilbara region, go to dreamsforabetterworld.com.au/vote