David Backes and his wife Kelly made a lot of children in Nairobi, Kenya smile on a mission trip to fit them with hearing aids. (Mike McCarthy, Starkey Hearing Foundation)
By Rob Rains
A trip David Backes hopes to make one day is to carry the Stanley Cup around the ice at Scottrade Center.
As much as that would be the crowning accomplishment of his professional career for the Blues’ captain, it was another trip that Backes and his wife Kelly made this summer which he knows will have a more profound and lasting impact on the lives of others .
The couple spent five days in Nairobi, Kenya in July on a mission trip with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, spending four of those days fitting more than 1,300 Nigerian children with hearing aids.
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” Backes said. “It was totally life-changing, being able to serve others and show them that people care about them across the world, and be able to connect them with their families and society.
“Being the person who turns up the dial on the hearing aid, and all of sudden the receptor can get information he can process in his brain … seeing them light up for the first time, it was something profound. I can’t even describe it. It was truly life changing.”
Many of the children Backes and his wife saw came from the poorest of living conditions. Some were born deaf but most lost their hearing because of an inability to fight off serious diseases such as malaria and meningitis.
“Those kids really have nothing and to see how joyful and happy they were really puts things in perspective,” Backes said. “They have been stuck in deaf schools but they are not really deaf, just hearing impaired. They don’t have the money even to get a low-level hearing aid. They are just stuck in a deaf school and not encouraged to learn language. They just sign, and that’s how they communicate.
“Some of them had language when they were younger, so if you are able to put a hearing aid in their ear, you can see them going from just signing to speaking Swahili, English and signing. They are tri-lingual at 12 years old. It’s pretty cool.”
Backes has been a supporter of the Starkey Hearing Foundation for years, for a very personal reason. When they were college students in Mankato, Minn., in 2005, Kelly experienced the sudden loss of hearing in one ear.
“She was 21 and just woke up one morning with sudden hearing loss,” Backes said. “There is no particular cause. They don’t know why, but she has worn a hearing aid since. She lost the high frequency in one ear, but she never uses it as a crutch. She’s a spitfire.
“That was our foot in the door to open up these avenues, which has led to this for sure. She has gone through a bit of a hardship with her hearing and Starkey was there for her when she needed it. Her aid is the size of my pinkie fingernail. The technology is just amazing. A lot of her friends have known her for five or 10 years and never knew she had the aid unless we tell them.”
Backes had attended the Starkey Foundation’s fundraising gala in St. Paul, Minn., and watched videos from mission trips throughout the world, so he thought he knew what to expect when the couple arrived in Nairobi.
He was wrong.
“To have those experiences and give those kids hearing aids was a truly humbling experience,” Backes said. “You take a lot away from that in terms of putting everything in perspective and being able to serve people.”
Rams defensive end Robert Quinn and former Rams linebacker Will Witherspoon made similar trips to Africa over the summer, but Backes is the first NHL player to go on a mission trip through the Starkey Foundation. He wants to be able to recruit some of his teammates, and NHL opponents, to go on future trips either back to Africa or to some of the other countries served by Starkey such as India, China or in South America.
“I’d love to go on another trip,” he said. “My wife is a registered nurse, so she serves a couple of different purposes. There are great opportunities to go serve others and it is starting to get some legs in the NHL community.”
On a team which has many players involved in charitable activities, the 30-year-old Backes leads the way. He and Kelly founded Athletes for Animals last year, a charity with the focus of raising awareness and finding homes for rescued animals.
It was also when they were students at Minnesota State in Mankato that they adopted their first cat together, and they have been involved in helping rescue animals and supporting animal shelters and causes ever since.
“It’s important for me to use my platform,” Backes said. “That was the reason we started Athletes for Animals. Being a spiritual guy, to whom much is given, much is required. Everyone has that platform. You don’t need work to take on an eight-hour a day job, just lend your name and make a few appearances at events and you can aid an organization to new heights.”
Backes pointed out how some of his teammates also have become very active in charitable causes, such as T.J. Oshie, who was the honorary chairman of the St. Louis Walk to End Alzheimer’s, and Alex Pietrangelo, whose niece is battling cancer.
“I think those things grow our team together when you see things like that,” Backes said.
The couple did see some stray dogs while they were in Kenya, but knew there really wasn’t much they could do for them.
“All we could do was love on them for a second and say a prayer that they will be fine,” he said. “We were there for a different mission.”
The trip to Africa included going on a safari and a vacation to South Africa.
Backes will always treasure those memories, but the smiles on the faces of the children after getting their hearing aids is what he truly will never forget.
He tried to introduce them to the sport of hockey and make them Blues fans, but he is not sure how good of a job he did.
“We handed out some T-shirts and showed them some videos and tried to explain it a little bit,” he said. “We showed them a couple of fights. They loved it.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains