Born with a cleft lip and palate that caused profound hearing loss, Oliver Stern’s future was uncertain and his parents had more questions than answers.
“It was shocking and frightening,” said Oliver’s father, Miami Beach real estate developer Lyle Stern. “It would be a few years before we were relatively sure that hearing loss would be the total extent of the impact of the congenital disability.”
Luckily, Oliver’s family had the resources to afford his 20 surgeries and cochlear implants that, eventually, restored his hearing.
“Being born deaf, I’ve learned two important lessons,” said Oliver, 17. “I was fortunate to be born into a family that was able to afford all the services necessary for me to continue hearing, and I was fortunate to be surrounded by a community of understanding individuals that don’t think of me as disabled, but rather as equal to them.”
Oliver now plans to dedicate his life’s work to give the gift of hearing to children less fortunate.
“He could easily be facially disfigured from his cleft lip and palate, shunned by society, and unable to speak and learn,” Lyle Stern said. “The fact that he has made it his life’s mission to help and educate children about obstacles that those with challenges face makes Beth [Oliver’s mother] and I very proud.” Stern’s wife is U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom.
In 2010, Oliver created Our Abilities, a two-part program that includes an initiative called One World Many Abilities, which raises awareness about disabilities by introducing guest speakers to local schools, and Oliver’s Hearing Aid Bank (OHAB) which provides loaner hearing devices and services to deaf children.
Through partnerships with Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and The University of Miami Ear Institute, Our Abilities has helped 130 children to date and has expanded to reach children in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Mark Baranek, Oliver’s mentor and former educator, helped him become the only person in Florida, and one of 15 nationwide, to receive the 2017 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award, which awards $36,000 to teens dedicated to social good and volunteer service.
“Oliver is a bright, sensitive, and caring teen. He truly feels for others and is always willing to help in any way to make our world a better place,” said Baranek, director of congregational engagement at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach. “He is someone who believes in the importance of community… and I was fortunate enough to nominate him for the National Diller Community Service Award.”
Oliver received his award in August at a ceremony in San Francisco, and he plans to use the funds in two ways: to further his mission by reaching more children through Our Abilities, and by donating to Temple Beth Sholom to support inclusion efforts for children with disabilities.
While his future was uncertain at birth, Oliver is now a junior at Ransom Everglades School with a future career choice that’s geared towards helping South Florida’s youth.
“I would love to be a politician when I grow up, so that I may continue to support and advocate for disabled youth and individuals in South Florida,” he said.