Kierstyn Kuehnle, who was born deaf in one ear and wears a hearing aid in the other, knows that “God does not make mistakes.” “Things happen for a reason,” she said. “He has laid out a life and a plan for each of us.”
This sense of mission has allowed Kierstyn to accept the considerable challenges that come with her hearing loss. It also has made this sixteen-year-old a nationally-recognized advocate for the needs and rights of the deaf and hard of hearing. Whether testifying before the NJ State Assembly or raising tens of thousands of dollars in the annual Walk4Hearing, Kierstyn works from a simple principle of social justice rooted in her Catholic faith: “Jesus teaches us to treat others the way we wish to be treated,” she said. “God loves all of his children equally. I’m just trying to bring awareness on behalf of God’s children who can’t hear. There is nothing wrong or different with us. We are created this way.”
Kierstyn’s main focus over the past five years has been the Philadelphia Walk4Hearing, where, so far, “Team Kiki” has raised $92,000 for the Hearing Loss Association of America. Forty percent of the funds are earmarked for local initiatives that her team identifies. Through Kierstyn’s leadership, the Ocean City Intermediate School was able to equip every classroom with instructionally-enhancing microphones. This year, more funds will bring the inspiring deaf actor and activist, Nyle DeMarco, to Ocean City High School to meet with the American Sign Language Club. “It is going to be life changing,” Kierstyn predicted. In the upcoming walk on October 20, Kierstyn hopes her team can push its total fundraising over the $100,000 mark. (To walk or donate, parishioners can go to hlaa.convio.net, look for the October 20 Philadelphia walk, then click on Team Kiki.)
Kierstyn’s unflagging efforts (she also holds bake sales throughout the year for the cause) has brought her a Prudential Spirit of Community Award and the 2017 Outstanding Middle Schooler Award from the State of N.J. Most recently, she traveled to Rochester, N.Y. to accept the Outstanding Young Adult of the Year award from the Hearing Loss Association of America, becoming one of the youngest people in the nation to be so honored.
For all she has done, Kierstyn knows from personal experience how much more should be done to make our society—and our parish—more accommodating and inclusive. “I love Church,” she declared, “but it is really hard to hear the messages. I hear in fragments,” she explained, “and sometimes I just cannot keep up.” She continued: “Everyone should be able to experience everything that they love, especially something as intimate as faith.” Kierstyn dreams that, one day, at least one of the churches in St. Damien Parish will be equipped with hearing loops, a technology that would enable anyone wearing a hearing aid to sync with the oral elements of the Mass. Another option is closed captioning. “I don’t want to miss what’s going on at church,” she said, “but I do.”
Kierstyn credits her Catholic faith and her social conscience to her mother and grandparents. At a young age she helped them distribute food and comfort to the needy. “We are close and we keep our faith close,” she said. “Whenever I have a hard time, my Pop Pop will quote Scripture and it will help me.” Her older cousin was her confirmation sponsor. “We have a special bond. We can talk about our faith and he is always there for me.”
Kierstyn’s goal is to become a pediatric audiologist. She wants to apply her experiences (including a mis-assessment when she was a baby) to improve outcomes for deaf and hard-of-hearing children. Kierstyn has been a lifelong admirer of Mother Teresa. “She saw everyone as beauty. She was endless in her love,” Kierstyn said. “I always wanted to take her name for confirmation, but she had only recently died and was not yet a saint. But just as I was approaching confirmation in 2016, she was sainted. I got my wish. It was a complete blessing.”