After losing her hearing at age 25, Michelle Tjelmeland received the gift of sound again through bilateral cochlear implants.
By Gemma Long
In 2005, upon realizing the lack of information and support to the hearing impaired, the former teacher founded the Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation (CIAF) — the only charity of its kind in the world. CIAF is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which provides hope, education, awareness, and understanding for those individuals and families facing the challenges of hearing loss.
The mission of CIAF, which has now entered its 10th year, is to connect people with the information and resources they need to make an educated decision about cochlear implant surgery and seek new opportunities for sound. The foundation offers guidance and support to people who choose to become recipients of cochlear implants.
CIAF has helped more than 800 families in their journeys to find information and resources about surgery through its Hear Again™ program. The organization provides recycled and refurbished cochlear implant parts like processors, batteries, cables, and coils through the Hear Again™ program.
“As well as being a bilateral cochlear implant recipient myself, my daughter Ellie is also a recipient, so the impact that cochlear implants have had on me personally and as a mother of a deaf child has been tremendous,” said Michelle, mom to Ellie and Lucy and wife to Joel.
“I started CIAF a decade ago to pay it forward for my family’s blessings to others who were dealing with profound hearing loss. It is my goal to help as many cochlear implant recipients as possible to reconnect with their worlds, through the gift of sound.”
Building on the momentum of the organization’s first six years, Michelle, 41, the owner of e-websmart.com, a business specializing in web and graphic design services, wanted to bring CIAF to the next level — to create further awareness about the choices in deafness and help even more people hear through cochlear implant technology. Michelle, with the help of friends, Laura Gehrs and Brandy Lozosky, opened District 23 in April of 2013. District 23 is a visually stunning and stimulating boutique, which sells fashion, clothing, and home accessories. All proceeds raised from the store help offset the operational costs of the CIAF.
The mercantile and foundry is located in District 23 of Sangamon County on the MacArthur Boulevard corridor in Springfield. The upper level of the building is a workspace for CIAF’s volunteers who create items for sale in the shop. These include repurposed furniture and handmade items through the Handcrafted for Hearing Impaired program. Previously, volunteers created Socks for Sound: burlap cut into the shape of a stocking, stuffed, and brightly painted.
“After my cousin’s wedding, I was given a large amount of burlap and soon after my friend, Brandy Lozosky, contacted me about a Christmas stocking she had made from the material. She suggested making and selling her design as a fundraising idea for CIAF.”
“We quickly rallied 20-plus volunteers and after three weeks of cutting, painting, stuffing and sewing, we had 375 stockings. It took 1,200 man-hours to make all those stockings, which we sold locally and shipped to over 20 states.” The Socks for Sound campaign ran for three years and raised approximately $25,000 for CIAF.
District 23 customers can often be seen lining up outside the door on Tuesday afternoons and the first and third Friday and Saturday of each month.
“The store has limited opening hours to keep overhead low and to continue to generate excitement. It also gives us an opportunity to restock merchandise on the second and fourth weeks of the month to make sure our customers have a new shopping experience each time. It is commonplace for our customers to write a check in excess of the amount of their purchase to donate to CIAF, for which we are extremely grateful,” said Michelle.
The success of CIAF, District 23 and the numerous fundraising campaigns and events that Michelle has organized would not be such a success if it were not for the many volunteers who provide their valuable time and support.
“Our community has taken notice of what we are doing at CIAF. Generous local organizations, businesses, and individuals have donated because they believe in what we are doing and how we go about it,” said Michelle. To date, CIAF has not only received support for its own fundraising efforts, but has also been named as charity recipient for five local festivals and events in the last two years. In 2014, the Springfield Chamber of Commerce named Michelle the Non-Profit Director of the Year and the foundation was also recognized by the State of Illinois as the co-recipient of The Interagency Committee on Employees with Disabilities Non-Profit Award. The co-recipient was the organization that runs the world famous Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.
The demand for CIAF’s services has never been greater. As a means to better fulfill the needs of cochlear implant recipients, the organization has developed the Hear Again TM Program to help maintain and match equipment. When the Hear Again TM program first started, miscellaneous cochlear implant equipment was stored in a cabinet in Michelle’s basement. The program allows CIAF volunteers to maintain applications and to properly inventory the cochlear equipment received via donations. The charity gets requests, not only locally, but also throughout the entire United States.
In February 2015, Michelle appointed equipment coordinator, Ivy Molen, to help with the program. Michelle, with the help of Ivy and a representative from Cochlear Americas, the world’s leading cochlear implant manufacturer, spent a week organizing thousands of pieces of donated equipment by sorting, digitally cataloging, and packaging each piece. The reorganization of the Hear Again TM program means there is now a faster turnaround from the time equipment is donated and received to the time it is gifted to approved applicants.
“This process used to take us two months, but now it only takes us two weeks and, in some emergency situations, just a few days or even hours,” said Michelle.
The CIAF founder is never one to stand still and now plans to transform the unused and rather dilapidated garden and backyard behind District 23 to provide a sensory garden, bocce ball court, and tiki bar with tables and chairs to facilitate ongoing fundraisers for CIAF.
“In order to get this project off the ground, we are looking, not only for financial support through the purchase of items needed for the garden, but for anyone willing to pick up a shovel or paintbrush and help us create an area for everyone to enjoy.”
For more information about the Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation, please email email@example.com or visit ciafonline.org where you can also make online donations through PayPal. Alternatively, checks can be mailed to: Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation, 130 S. John Street, Rochester, IL 62563.
For more information about District 23, please visit district23.com, call 217-679-4643, or check out the store at 1413 MacArthur Boulevard, Springfield, IL 62704. The shop is open every Tuesday from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and every first and third Friday and Saturday each month from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. You can keep up-to-date with new items for sale at District 23 on the store’s dedicated Facebook page at www.facebook.com/DistrictTwentyThree.
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